Via the Rockman Unity blog, we have the rare chance to read an interview with Zero series character designer and illustrator Toru Nakayama. More recently, Nakayama was the character designer for Inti Creates' Dragon Marked for Death. He returned to the Zeries to create the boxart (and other goodies) for the Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection, as well.
Grab a cup of coffee because this is a lengthy interview, albeit with some information you may not have heard before. Nevertheless there's some very interesting information to be found!
Thanks to Sidier for the translation:
|Toru Nakayama: The character designer of the “Rockman Zero” series. Nowadays he’s a freelancer.|
Ucchy: It’s been a while! I’m Ucchy from Rockman Unity! I’m looking forward to see what you’ve been doing, Mr. Nakayama!
Nakayama: It’s been a while, yes! And I also keep track of your activities by looking at the screen! I was happy at Rockman 11 being produced and released last year! I see you’re way cheerier than usual so that motivates me too!
Ucchy: Wow! Thanks a lot! Your words also make me happy, and also motivate me too! Please tell me once again your profile in few words and what you’ve been doing as of late.
Nakayama: A lot of the Zero series designs? (Concepts, characters, logos, illustrations, events formatting, etc)... I handled all of those. As of late I also worked on character design for a Nintendo Switch game released this year’s January.
Ucchy: Of course! I’m looking forward to the updates! (Mysterious comments) It’s very hard to get a dragon (censored)... Ahem, ahem.
Alright! “Rockman Zero”, the 1st game of the series, was released in 2002, there were a total of 4 games and then continued in the “ZX” series. When the “Zero Collection” was released in 2010, you also made drawings for the main illustration and the CDs and so. You also drew illustrations for the Rockman series 30th anniversary. What did you think when you were told about this collection?
Nakayama: Seeing how the “Classic” and “X” collection had been released, I suspected it could happen but when I was told about it, I was surprised, to think it was actually happening…!
Ucchy: Oh! So you expected it to happen! When I was also given confirmation of the development and that you’d be drawing the main visuals, I was “THAT'S FOR REAL!?” and I asked Producer Takenaka many times; I got SO excited!
Please tell me what you remember of when you worked in the “Zero” games. You worked in concept arts and main visuals so it must’ve been a lot of work.
Nakayama: When I was working with the Zero 1 team, there were very few people. (Only 4 people worked on the graphics. Each handed their respective items.). I worked on many things and keeping the consistency was the thing that took most time and rationality. I remember that eventually more people began to join us.
Ucchy: I see. You started with a few people in the team. You also designed the logos, I guess that must’ve been a lot of work, no!? You also worked on many other things to keep consistency in designs. You also mentioned “Events Format” but what kind of job was that?
Nakayama: To put it simple… Drawing something like “storyboards” for the story’s events as the game progressed. Introductory explanations in the opening, after you beat the Golem boss, checking number of materials and volume, calculating production costs…
Ucchy: WOW! (Sorry for the weird voice) T-t-these are…! Storyboards! WHOA! These are a TREASURE! They’re not in the Complete Works, are they? Thank you! I see! This is the “Zero 1” opening. Here you calculate how many materials will be needed. From what I’ve heard about the hardware of the time, all games of the series had the consistent theme of “battle with contents”. The games also used voice clips so I guess it was a struggle to fit it all inside the games.
Nakayama: Zero 1 was a new hardware and a new game system so I do think it was a struggle… But that’s why I have more memories of that game than the others. I watched it again recently and I remembered that the description (in the materials?) said that “Ciel” was “Roll”, because the scenario and setting supervisor, Mr. Kawano, suggested that. (I apologize if I don’t properly remember the exact words or misinterpret what happened.)
Ucchy: Oh! True! Mr. Kawano Yoshinori, who was also director for the “DASH (Legends)” series too. I’ve heard that he was the Director in the Capcom side of development for the game (his name is indeed in the game’s staff roll). Guess I must go and ask him if he remembers that (laughs).
Nakayama: As for myself, I made no touches to the character naming of the Zero characters (laughs). I remember that they were changed because the producer decided so.
Ucchy: Wow. Talk about an important story! I’m glad I suggested this interview! Alright. Regarding the “Zero” series design work… There were many design ideas collected in the OCW as well. There were comments in the development staff interview that “Mr. Nakayama’s strength greatly helped express the world of Zero”. The building of the world-view and your rules at the time on how to design the characters, as well as the mottoes you were aiming at… Can you tell me more about those?
Nakayama: When the initial plans were done, the NES had the (Classic) Rockman, the SNES had the X series, the PlayStation had DASH (Legends) and the GBA had EXE (Battle Network). The idea was to make a new “Zero”, with a new world-view.
Ucchy: The 1st Rockman EXE released in (March) 2001, it was a launch title of the GBA.
Nakayama: The EXE series were progressing on their own, so we worked to establish a difference with them so that (Zero) wouldn’t look like a spin-off (of the EXE games). I remember focusing on the form and the coloring.
Ucchy: 2001 was the year when X6 was released as well. (Zero released in 2002).
Many of the initial X series characters had a clear combination of base colors. Mr. Kaji, who worked on the designs, said “it’s because the SNES allowed us to use many colors”. What do you exactly mean when you talk about “form”, though?
Nakayama: Unlike other games when you shoot at enemies far away, in Zero you dodge the attacks, get closer and cut them in half: that was how we saw it.
Ucchy: I see. True. (It’s similar to the Strider games).
Nakayama: In Zero’s case, we didn’t want the running motion to look dull so I made the feet very thin and the body very light to give a speedy feeling. I also avoided attaching things to his shoulders which might limit his movements when swinging the sword upwards.
Ucchy: The dash feels comfortable and very speedy indeed! The shoulders’ movements range… It’s true, there’s no armor or anything in them.
Nakayama: They often become a nuisance in the movements and they’re also hard to recreate in sprite format. In terms of image, I reduced his armor, sacrificing defense to make him lighter and so make him extremely mobile to get close to the enemies. See all with a paper-thing difference! Or something like that (laughs)
Ucchy: It feels very good when you close in and beat the foes, you go in a “I did it” feeling. Also “I’m amazing!”. And how you design while considering how they’ll move like as sprites.
Nakayama: As for the foes, we took some traits of the animals used as motif which make them unique and made those traits stand out. The other pieces were relatively strongly symbolized and turned into a simpler shape, or so I think. Also, if the silhouettes looked cool on their own and overlapped the foes, we changed their forms and so on. Each individual case had a lot of work on it but keeping the overall balance was also very important.
Ucchy: I see. Horns, feathers, tails…. If you make those parts stand out, you get a character that stands out. Alouette… I mean, silhouettes. When making the solid coating, you design things so you can tell the difference, or so I’ve heard from designers in Capcom too. That’s what having the “form” in mind means. When you see all bosses lined up, you do think “Wow! What a good work!”. And that’s because the general balance has been carefully worked out. At the time I did think “Ah. Now I gotta fight all of these. It’s gonna be a pain”. (laughs)
Nakayama: As for the coloring… Rather than colorful and luster, we imaged a worn down world so we toned down the saturation and used somewhat dirty solo colors. Did you feel that the image color for each character was easy to tell? Also, we took the (Classic) Rockman series into consideration in some parts, more than the X Series.
Ucchy: Huh!? The Classic Series!? Is that so!?
Nakayama: For example. The lower half of the Four Heavenly Kings is the same between them, and their weapons being compatible with Zero is a remnant of having planned a Rockman weapon get system (so that if was picked up in a later version of the planning it’d be easier to switch over to that plan). It wasn’t implemented in the final games, though.
Ucchy: Wow! True! Oh yes. When the plastic model of “Zero” was released, I remember someone saying “let’s mod it and use it to make the Four Heavenly Kings”. I see! I think I’d never heard about it before, no! What a discovery!
Nakayama: The Rockman 11 weapon change didn’t only change the colors but part of the head and body also changed; I did think it was cool when I saw it and, at the same time, secretly think “Oh yes. I’m glad I designed the Four Heavenly Kings as I did.”.
Ucchy: Oh! Is that so!? So there was a link there!! I apologize for being repetitive, I think that the sprites in games are the peak of 2D games! Looking at them in the new “Collection”, through a big screen, I can tell that in very detailed spots your designs are being reflected, so there might be new findings there! Looking forward to it! I did think that it’d be very hard to turn your illustrations into sprites, but I’d like of you to tell me about the “man-hours” estimated for the job which you mentioned a while ago.
Nakayama: With 3D designs, it’s modelling so the complexity of surfaces and the textures, as well as the shape of details… All of them must be taken into account, but… The 2D has characters with coarse resolution, so you trim down the details prioritizing making them very mobile and shortening the production time; form comes first.
Ucchy: Trim down? I see. They are designed in a way to make the conversion to sprites easier. Game making = you must consider making time and efficiency; all of these must be kept in mind, at least that’s what I’ve understood from our talk. You mentioned it before, but having the Four Heavenly Kings have common parts was because of the above?
Nakayama: Hm, true. There’s that meaning, of course. But when making the design, I tend to put a lot of info on them, and when the sprite must be made the graphics staff discretion chose what to trim down. And when there’s people good at that, they even expand on complicated designs as much as they can.
Ucchy: I see! With each new game, you were told something like “We can make more than this so add more info to the designs”, no? By the time of Zero 3, it was pretty amazing. Is there a character that you felt you “overdid” it?
Nakayama: By the time of Zero 3, the ability of newbies had clearly increased. I guess that I was close to but didn’t actually “overdo” anything (laughs). For example… The Vile Eight Judges’ human forms (I actually wanted to battle them) were something not really needed in the game, but… But the staff wanted to make enemies that gave off a different aura, and whether you show them to the player or not makes a big difference. The graphics staff probably had a different opinion of that though (laughs)
Ucchy: They were like “wah, hah, hah! More work!”. You wonder about that, yes. The balance between making time and the staging is hard! But the Eight Judges did give a “they’re dangerous” feeling with those forms, and yet their human forms made them terrific, you felt something unknown from them. The Cyber Elves also didn’t have a general image to begin with, and I’ve heard that your designs came first. You said that “there could’ve been other approaches”, but can you tell me about “there was this idea” or “there was this suggestion that didn’t make it”... Apart from Cyber Elves, that is.
Nakayama: In the first stages of (Zero 1) making, we were making everything from scratch so we didn’t whether Zero would be the only playable character.
Ucchy: Oh, yes?
Nakayama: And so, as an opposite of a swordsman, Ciel was designed to be a wizard-like playable character. Instead of being her attack method, Cyber Elves would’ve been more like “summon program magic”. And so the illustrations prioritized the “pretty” looks.
Ucchy. I see! In the opening of Zero 1, when Ciel yells “Passy”, the Cyber Elf is shown as sparkling within the game screen, and it does feel magic-like, even.
Nakayama: There’d be a Cyber Elves user in the enemy side and while the effects would be the same, the looks would be very “evil” indeed... That was a suggestion there once was.
Ucchy: Oh! How interesting! In this Collection’s main visual, a lot of characters can be seen but could you tell me if there’s a concept to it?
Nakayama: I was given an order on the layout and the characters to be shown. The characters were Zero, ZX, Ciel, Prairie, Girouette. I also wanted to add Aile so I steadily began to add more people. It covers both series so I wanted to prioritize a feeling of “gathering”.
Ucchy: Is that so? It was quite the refined order, indeed. (I see, Girouette is also amongst them). I also think that I’d liked you put there both “ZXs”. Else for those who only play 1 of the characters, they’d be “the protagonist isn’t shown”. And you sure added a lot more characters indeed. Thank you very much, Mr. Nakayama (laughs). I think it’s the first time there’s an official illustration but “that character” is also there, too! Was it your idea to include them? Also tell me about other points and must-see parts of the main visual.
Nakayama: Good point. Compared to the amount of PCs (Playable Characters) in the ZX series, you do feel that there’s too little of them in the Zero series. That character only briefly appears as such in the games themselves but they’re technically an ally, so…
Ucchy: Good point. Zero is the only PC of Zero series, after all. I think everyone will rejoice at this. It might be a brief appearance but it vividly remains in the memories and there’s lots of fanarts of them. You also drew the E-Capcom limited edition illustration too. This illustration with the villains in spectacular indeed. Was this an order from E-Capcom? Or your own idea?
Nakayama: I was given carte blanche to do this one so I gathered the rival-like characters that couldn’t fit in the main illustration. Rather than the world view I wanted to make a gathering, like it was a festival.
Ucchy: That’s great! A gathering drawing compiling various games is anyone’s dream! There was such a great reaction when it was published. You drew a lot of the main visuals and the E-Capcom version, so most is covered but… Is there a character you like drawing or someone you dislike drawing?
Nakayama: It’s fun to draw the foe characters. Because they also have important roles too.
Ucchy: They all stand out.
Nakayama: I said it in the Official Complete Works but I LOVE Pantheons and I wanted to make more variations in the games. But I can only draw when I’m commissioned by game makers so (laughs)
Ucchy: Hah, hah. How true. I wish there was an all Pantheon goods. They actually have an important role (in the Zero 1) opening. There’s several variations but you wanted to make more.
Nakayama: I like the “Joes” from the other Rockman games but it’s probably hard to make goods outta them. I feel sad I couldn’t make something like a Mettool, a one-point like pronoun character, for the Zero series. But it’s not like I have a plan on how to make one so.
Ucchy: The Pantheons do look like the Joes, yes. Your self-portrait is a sprite-version of a Pantheon too! The band aid is different from the portrait you used in the Official Complete Works! What attention for details! I can feel your love for them. What’s more surprising is that you made four different pictures for each shop’s pre-orders. They’re so gorgeous. If there is a concept to them, could you please tell me about it?
Nakayama: The splitting in half finish move is emblematic of this series so. The illustration I drew for the planning was what led to that being added to the game, or at least that’s my impression. Cutting and battling, a game that made it feels it great. I made it into an illustration to explain that visually.
Ucchy: Wow!! I’d never seen this before! It’s so impactful! I see! So that’s why! Cutting in half with one slash is what defines these games. I always thought “Amazing how they can make these” while I played them!
Nakayama: We did discuss about that, worried about the CERO game rating (laugh). The choices of weapons were attacking and slashing, we choose based on appeal. I also like the Shield Boomerang so I wanted to add it to the illustrations.
Ucchy: This collection is rated “for all ages”! But, say… Make five illustrations for shop pre-orders, top brass (laughs). No, I wanna see the Zero Knuckle too so make it six! (I know it doesn’t slash). And a Pantheon too so make it 7…
Nakayama: Good point. I couldn’t draw those for these illustrations but in terms of gameplay they’re pretty fun weapons so please try using them when playing. I’d like to draw tons of Pantheons but… There’s no demand for them (laughs)
Ucchy: I think there is! I think people will begin asking for them after reading this! Your illustrations have always been advanced, and they don’t feel old at all. But is there an illustration that you like (or influenced you) or any mangaka?
Nakayama: I liked the Capcom Design Room illustrators’ works a lot. (Still do). It might sound impertinent, but the Capcom Design Works is my Bible!!
Ucchy: Oh, you mean this one?
Nakayama: Also. When Zero 1 was being developed, Rockman EXE was released and I was surprised at the dramatic changes (in the designs).
Ucchy: Same! Their designs impressed me too.
Nakayama: I was moved by the beauty in design, thinking “Oh, so this is the new Rockman. A rebuilding of the games to match the current times.”. Looking back at them now, I still think they are amazing.
Ucchy: I think the same can be said of the Zero series too! I feel envious of the elementary students of the time who could enjoy both at the same time! Please give me a message for those looking forward to this new collection.
Nakayama: I’d be glad if newcomers have a look at the designs but… Play them and enjoy by yourselves the unique drawing style of the sprites and the atmosphere, the exhilaration when you dodge the attacks and get close to the enemy, the feeling of progress, the sadly burning music, the edgy feeling and so on! As for the veterans, use this chance to play again and remember your youth, I’d be happy if you did!
Ucchy: Looking forward to your next works. Thanks for spending all this time with me! Mission Complete!
How was it like? The stories of the development and the illustration, and those never-before-heard episodes…! Those who played back then and those who will now play for the time, play them to your fullest!