During Anime Expo this past weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with two important figures behind the development of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, Spike Chunsoft's upcoming survival RPG set to be released sometime early next year for the PlayStation 4 and PC.
They are Takayuki Sugawara, the Creative Director, and Yoshinori Terasawa, the game's producer, whom both have previously worked on the DanganRonpa series. Sugawara served as DanganRonpa 2's director, while Terasawa has produced the entire series.
Just a note before we get into it - since the translator from Spike Chunsoft waited until both provided input before responding to my questions, I wasn't able to separate out what either Sugawara or Terasawa said individually. As a result, I decided to unite their responses under the name Spike Chunsoft to make things simple. With that out of the way, here is what they had to say during our interview!
RPG Site: So Zanki Zero was released only yesterday in Japan (as of the recording of the interview). How has the reception to the game been so far?
Spike Chunsoft: Actually better than we expected.
RPG Site: It's something different than what fans are used to. It's also clear you both like to make games that get players emotionally invested. Did you start designing a game like Zanki Zero based on that concept or did that come later?
Spike Chunsoft: DanganRonpa was definitely a game that puts people's expectations in check and keeps them on their toes by bringing out those emotions. That is definitely something we want to bring back again with Zanki Zero.
RPG Site: And Zanki Zero features characters that do not have superhuman powers like in DanganRonpa. Instead, you rely on the seven deadly sins to tell their individual stories. I was hoping you guys can talk about how you came up with that concept.
Spike Chunsoft: So the characters are, like you said, ordinary people. But this time around, these titles, these seven deadly sins represent the characters. They are also representative of these traumas and things from their past that they carry over. And so that's why their professions, like Doctor of Greed, are a part of each character.
Once again, these people aren't superhuman, and these traumas from their past are things that can really happen to people. So it feels like they're more relatable, and what we got from Japan is that it's actually more directly relatable from the player because it's like, "Oh, look, this could happen to me."
RPG Site: It seems like with DanganRonpa, a lot of the focus was that the protagonist was the one you were supposed to relate to the most. But by having the whole cast that you can relate to, it goes back into making players potentially more emotionally invested.
Spike Chunsoft: Yes, it does.
RPG Site: Moving on, please talk a little bit about the concept of aging and how that was developed in this game.
Spike Chunsoft: The main characters of this game are actually clones, and so that's why they come with the aging process.
What we mean by clones in the context of this game is that they're not just similar to whomever the original person is, but they also naturally come with this phenomenon that they died 13 days before. They start as a child, and then they grow into an adult, middle-aged, senior, and then they die of old age.
RPG Site: So just an aside, how did the character artist feel about drawing old people fanservice?
Spike Chunsoft: I don't really know how they're feeling but the artist is actually a girl, so I wonder how she felt about that.
RPG Site: I see these conversations online about whether she accurately represented how their bodies look as they get older.
Spike Chunsoft: The older people are a little saggier.
RPG Site: People talked so much about it that I quickly had to change threads! So, moving on - age clearly plays a big role in Zanki Zero, as does the concept of cloning through the Extend Machine. Tell me more about how this mechanic works.
Spike Chunsoft: The Extend Machine is basically a machine you find within the game that you use by earning points by defeating enemies such as an animal - for example, those goats [from the gameplay footage]. You use those scores basically as a currency to revive your characters through an arcade-looking machine, which is the Extend Machine.
RPG Site: So this most likely goes into spoiler territory, but does the existence of the Extend Machine mean that humanity will never go extinct?
Spike Chunsoft: The way "Game Over" works in this game is that if all eight protagonists die at once, that's it - humanity is extinct.
RPG Site: I guess they can't make clones, so that makes sense!
Spike Chunsoft: So in order to revive the characters, each of them has an X on their belly button that you may have seen in the trailers, and that is called the X key. In order to bring them back to life, you need to take that key out and stick it in the Extend Machine. So if there's no one around to do that, then everyone is dead.
RPG Site: Another feature of Zanki Zero is the ability for players to build up bonds and affection. With DanganRonpa, fans were naturally drawn to certain people. Please explain a bit about how important this bond mechanic is to this game.
Spike Chunsoft: So it isn't vital to clear the game or anything like that. It's mostly extra scenarios for players to enjoy when they match certain characters together when they go to sleep. The more characters spend time with, the more familiar they become with each other. It does tie into game mechanics, but it's not absolutely vital in order to clear the game.
RPG Site: I was going to ask about the sleeping/eating/going to the bathroom mechanics, but I think you guys kind of talked about it during the [Anime Expo] panel about what that's all about.
Spike Chunsoft: Zanki Zero is a survival game, a survival RPG. So there are various parameters that you have to manage as you're exploring and playing the game. Some of those are vitality, stamina, stress levels, and as you mentioned, the bladder levels.
They all kind of tie into each other because if you eat, you know you're going to have to go to the bathroom. If you don't go to the bathroom, it's going to make you more stressed out. That's going to affect how you play the game as well. So those are some of the things you have to manage as you're playing through the game.
RPG Site: So one of the best things I noticed is that Sho Terashima and Mirai, who are on Extend TV, are voiced by the Japanese voice actors for Goku and Frieza from Dragon Ball Z. This looks completely intentional, and I wanted to know about that!
Spike Chunsoft: So those voice actors are very well known - veteran voice actors who are very good at what they do. I think it's interesting to have these people because you expect them to act a certain way. So to throw out those expectations and show these extremes is really interesting.
RPG Site: They seem very friendly to each other. "Are they going to fight? No?" And this is kind of a follow-up - is Sho Terashima inspired by Chargeman Ken (a popular series from the 70s)?
Spike Chunsoft: No comment. (laughs)
RPG Site: Hah, just a familiar style. So what was the hardest part of this game to make?
Spike Chunsoft: There's a lot of various things that work in this game. From the stress management and the survival aspects to combat and exploration, including puzzles. So the hardest part I would say is the balance because people have different levels in which they can play through these games. Because of that, they don't want to make it too hard or make it too easy. So, that was actually one of the harder points.
RPG Site: I found from a lot of Spike Chunsoft games that there's always multiple layers and multiple mechanics that you have to balance, and I always assumed that was the biggest challenge.
Spike Chunsoft: We always have a hard time with it.
RPG Site: Do you feel with the critical and commercial success of DanganRonpa, you'll be able to continue branching out with new ideas like you are with Zanki Zero? And is there any genre you'd be interested in tackling next?
Spike Chunsoft: Yeah, we like to definitely keep challenging ourselves with RPGs, adventure games, and the shooting genre. So if we are able to, then we definitely want to expand.
RPG Site: I would say that it's nice that you guys don't funnel yourselves into a single genre. Games like Zanki Zero are multiple genres, so you don't want really box yourselves in.
Spike Chunsoft: We think it helps.
RPG Site: That's all I've got, so I wanted to thank you both. We very much appreciate it and I'm sure people will be very excited about what you guys have to say. Is there anything you both would like to share with the people who are looking forward to Zanki Zero?
Spike Chunsoft: Zanki Zero: Last Beginning just released in Japan and it will be a little while before it comes out to the west. However, we really believe it's going to be a really fun game and we want everyone to look forward to it, so please play it!