Natsuki Chronciles and the WonderSwan dev contest that started it all •

Natsuki Chronciles and the WonderSwan dev contest that started it all •

When the Japanese technology and design company Qute Corporation released the WonderWitch game development kit just over two decades ago, the team probably never guessed that they would put them on the path to becoming the world. one of the flagship boutique studios in the modern shooter form.

Qute may not catch the mainstream attention that heavyweights of the Cave and Treasure genre so skillfully draw, but his designs are celebrated by fans of the genre and include some highly sought after shmup collectibles. Yet behind all of their cult status, Qute’s version library remains relatively accessible in terms of gameplay and scoring systems, and is increasingly available in the West. In fact, the team is still there, having won their last title Natsuki Chronicles on PlayStation 4 and PC on these coasts. It features a remarkable and energetic horizontal shooter that is both a prequel and a sequel to Qute’s previous game, Ginga Force – and its story really begins in a fateful game development competition staged around the time that bullet hell was asserting its dominance over the larger genre more and more.

Natsuki Chronicles Developer: Qute Publisher: Rising Star Games Availability: Now available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One

Like so many boutique or cult shooter developers – including Triangle Service, Success, G. Rev, Moss, and Milestone – Qute has shown that in a genre that is arguably constrained by its own conventions, there is plenty of room. for the distinct. Compared to Cave’s fascinating crossed ball patterns, or Treasure’s grand atmospheric shmup operas, Qute’s works have a rather different tone. Although far from being really minimalist mechanically and aesthetically, they are precise and fast; uncluttered thoroughbred shooters with understated charisma and a knack for the exhilarating. To take advantage of an exit from Qute is to switch to the border between offensive and defensive play, juggling these priorities like a delicate seasoning of random enemy placements keeps you away from complacency. Put simply, these are very good shooting games, if not quite conventional.

And just as Qute’s shooter games are distinct, so was its development kit. A game-making platform for Bandai’s WonderSwan family of handhelds, the WonderWitch was designed for hobbyist coders – though it uses the C programming language, requiring a degree of skill not required to adopt the tools of coding. development enthusiasts today. One of the enthusiasts of the day drawn to the WonderWitch was M-KAI – who, like so many shooting game developers of the day, chose to practice their craft under a pseudonym.

As a youngster, he had learned the assembly of the Z80 himself in secret, choosing to keep his hobby game private in a home environment that was at the time, he says, somewhat strict. M-KAI quickly created several MSX homebrew shooter games, but the desire to create the hellish ball games he saw emerging around him meant that he would quickly yearn for a more powerful creative platform.

The WonderWitch turned out to be that platform.

In November 2000, Qute launched the WonderWitch Grand Prix competition, encouraging hobbyist coders to push what was possible with the development kit, while also offering a prize of ¥ 500,000. M-KAI decided to participate in the competition – commonly known as “WWGP 2001”. He was on the verge of creating an icon of the shooter genre.

“At the time, I was also fascinated by the STG bullet hell which had just started to become popular and was doing my best on the MSX to keep pace,” recalls M-KAI. “But from a spec standpoint the MSX just couldn’t deliver. It was around that time when the WonderWitch was released and it offered things like sprites, background functionality. , [that] above all I discovered that even programming in C language could offer good speed. So like a fish in water, I found my element. “

The game M-KAI created for this competition was Judgment Silversword. He won WWGP 2001 and in 2004 received a commercial version of Qute for the WonderSwan Color. Today, original copies of M-KAI’s triumphant game cost £ 400 and up. Considered a technical marvel at the time, Judgment Silversword – which many say was in part inspired by the Treasure Radiant Silvergun masterpiece – is perhaps the defining WonderSwan Color game. Collector’s lore claims that if you own a WonderSwan color, you need a copy of Judgment Silversword to go with it.

A rare glimpse inside the Qute studio space, with work on Natsuki Chronicles in progress.

Through this retail release – and by involving other participants in WWGP 2001 – Qute created a shooter development team that collaborates to this day. Yuuki Yonezawa received an honorable mention for entering WWGP 2001, before joining Qute, working on most of the studio’s shooters catalog. As well as being the director of Natsuki Chronicles, lead designer, and more, Yuuki has contributed to the sublime Eschatos and, more recently, Ginga Force.

By the time of WWGP 2001, M-KAI’s friend Mach also got involved, initially giving a second opinion on Judgment Silversword.

“I met M-KAI in the same department at a company where we worked together at the time,” recalls Mach, who also avoids using his full name. “Finding out that we had a mutual interest in video games, we spent a lot of time together talking about games during our breaks. So it’s not a relationship like a doujin [or] leisure circle. We started collaborating when M-KAI talked about creating an STG for a WonderWitch programming competition and during development I used [to] play and review his work. “

This occasional collaboration would soon solidify into something more official, with Mach becoming M-KAI’s primary collaborator. He would continue to work on every Qute shooter with M-KAI, tackling much of the design of Ginga Force and Natsuki Chronicles.

It’s also worth noting here that two other beloved shooting game creators were linked to WWGP competitions – namely Kenta Cho from ABA Games and doujin specialist Murasame Aeju. The impact of WonderWitch on the design of shooting games is profound and too rarely recognized.

Returning to Qute, as WWGP 2001 established a team dynamic that still exists to this day, Judgment Silversword established a gameplay personality that is absolutely evident in the new version of Natsuki Chronicles. Qute’s shooting games are universally inspired by many of the genre’s subforms, which means they never fit neatly into just one category. These aren’t pure ball games, nor pillars of design conventions from an earlier era, but they evoke both.

1Judgment Silversword, Qute’s first landmark shooter, is available on Steam today. Or you can buy an original WonderSwan if you have £ 400 spare.

“Looking at the other TSGs, I think it’s mostly the bullet hell ones with high difficulty or the ones that look extremely simple in an 8-bit style,” Yuuki says. “At Qute, we have tried to find something that falls between those that are still difficult. In other words, you could say that we are consciously trying to express something that has been lost over the years, and give them a modern twist.

It is this positioning that places Qute’s outings among the most accessible of purebred shooters who followed the emergence of bullet hell in the 1990s. Although none of the games are particularly easy with the settings by default, they give even the most casual shooter fans a fair bit of playtime in each credit. And over time the games have gotten a bit more welcoming, perhaps thanks to one small team honing their craft collectively.

“I guess we’re making games for the age group that used to play TSGs rather than hardcore TSG players,” Mach suggests. “Together with Judgment Silversword and Cardinal Sins, they were developed as a mobile [handheld] Game. Eschatos, as an arcade game. Along with Ginga Force and Natsuki Chronicles, they were developed as a home console game. With each game we were aware of the target audience for the different platforms but that didn’t mean we just wanted to recreate something like a retro game specific to a certain platform. “

“We were really aiming for the most modern TSG when we started developing Natsuki Chronicles,” adds Yuuki. “It’s a traditional horizontal TSG, but it has a very rich history, lots of unlockable weapons, and an upgrade system. Plus, I think it could be the first TSG to implement a display system of ball trajectory. [which shows where bullets are headed before they reach the player] and we think it would surely improve the accessibility and playability of a few speeds. We also really tried to bring together everything we could think of in terms of horizontal STG format with what is possible with the latest technology today. On top of all that, we’ve included an Arcade mode for a more traditional playstyle and designed it so players ranging from STG hardcode fans to newbies can all enjoy the game. “

3A highlight of Natsuki Chronicles is its boss fights, which frequently launch distinct and cunning bullet patterns at the player.

Remarkably, Natsuki Chronicles manages to serve both hardcore and generalist fans in one – a significant achievement that has historically proven to be a delicate one for shooter developers who want to meet the needs of the most dedicated score hunters without leaving behind the much wider audience. of players interested in casualness.

So if you’re looking to expand your shooting experience beyond Cave and Treasure, Qute is well worth your time, with Natsuki Chronicles providing a very contemporary starting point – and Judgment Silversword still feels relevant on Steam some 20 years after its launch. WWGP 2001 start. There are of course other talented boutique shooter outfits out there, but Qute is unlike any other.

This fact is perhaps most evident in the shooters the team chooses as the most interesting or inspiring. While others might point to some really hardcore offerings like Ketsui or Battle Garegga, Qute highlights Mii Plaza’s SteetPass Squad shooter, Lucid Games’ Geometry Wars 4, and 2018 indie ZeroRanger.

It all came long after Qute forged his shooter formula, but in their weird way, collectively they say a lot about everything that followed.

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