Leaving Luck to Grezzo
How a Japanese upstart became Nintendo’s right-hand
There are many legendary stories in the video game industry. Usually, these stories revolve around famous creators and how they invented the characters and worlds that many of us grew up with. Often — and especially in Japan — we hear about game designers who typically have long careers at large development studios. Perhaps this is a trait of Japanese companies in general, but it’s often the case that creators will remain dedicated to one company for most of their career. Of course, there are exceptions; a prominent recent example would be Hideo Kojima’s departure from Konami to form Kojima Productions, which is currently — and secretly — working away on the enigmatic and highly-anticipated Death Stranding.
Another exception, though lesser known, is Koichi Ishii, the founder and CEO of Grezzo, a small Japanese developer who has pretty consistently punched above their weight right from the beginning. Grezzo’s most recent project is the fantastic 3DS version of Luigi’s Mansion, but it’s not the only major Nintendo IP the upstart developer has been entrusted with — if you played the exceptional 3DS remakes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, you’ll have encountered their masterful work.
You might be wondering how a little-known developer, founded in 2007, ended up in the enviable (and daunting) position of handling some of the game industry’s most important and beloved franchises. The story is fascinating, and it all starts with Koichi Ishii himself and his remarkable early years making video games.
Ishii’s video game career really started in 1987, when he joined Squaresoft (now Square Enix). He didn’t waste any time, diving head-first into the company’s now-iconic Final Fantasy series. Ishii wore numerous hats throughout the development of the first three Final Fantasy games; he was deeply involved in all aspects of production, and became something of a right-hand man to Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. In fact, he convinced Sakaguchi to recruit legendary artist Yoshitaka Amano, who became the principal character designer for the entire series. Sakaguchi was actually skeptical of Amano originally, saying “Forget that guy, I’ve never heard of him; this is the sort of art I’m looking for,” (he then handed some magazine clippings he’d saved to Ishii, who replied “Hey, Amano drew these.”)
Ishii was something of a walking contradiction, at least in Sakaguchi’s eyes. According to Sakaguchi, Ishii had a “really rough demeanour”; he spent most of his time wandering around in a leather jacket while simultaneously drawing chocobos and “other cute things” (Sakaguchi’s description, not mine). This apparent contrast fascinated Sakaguchi, who credits Ishii as an important driving force behind the Final Fantasy vision. The graphic design of the series — even the integral role of crystals in the setting — were all spearheaded by Ishii.
Having cut his teeth on Final Fantasy, Ishii was eager to push the boundaries. What kind of experience could Square produce next? One of Ishii’s key observations was that Final Fantasy’s turn-based system lacked a sense of immediacy and dynamism; this was an element he wanted to emphasise his next project. This idea formed the basis of Seiken Densetsu (“the legend of the sacred sword”), which began life as a Final Fantasy spin-off, and launched on the Game Boy in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure and in Europe as Mystic Quest. If Seiken Densetsu represented a tentative break from its parent franchise, Seiken Densetsu 2 (known as Secret of Mana in the West) was an emphatic and bold step forward.
Ishii had given birth to some of Final Fantasy’s most beloved characters, including Chocobos and Moogles. His impact on Secret of Mana was no less crucial. One of Ishii’s goals was to build an enchanting world populated full of fantastic beasts. Like many great artists, Ishii was inspired by works of fiction he had grown up with — and, perhaps uniquely for a Japanese artist, his childhood memories were flooded with rich (and sometimes frightening) images from Western literature, including Alice in Wonderland and The Moomins.
Secret of Mana was originally intended for release on the ill-fated SNES-CD. The development team were excited by the potential of the new platform (especially the CD-ROM media format) that would supply a digital canvas of unprecedented proportions, enabling a never seen before level of creative freedom. The cancellation of the SNES-CD drive influenced the project in several profound ways — for one thing, Akira Toriyama left the team (the Dragon Ball creator had been brought on as a character artist; he later contributed his talents to Chrono Trigger). In some respects, the collapse of the SNES-CD project and the subsequent changes to the development team actually afforded Ishii with greater creative flexibility. In fact, the team’s creative passion was to explore the unknown — there was a strong desire to do things that had never been done before. Perhaps the relative technological limitations of the CD-less SNES console only bolstered that motivation.
The relationship between Koichi Ishii and Iranian-American programmer Nasir Gebelli became the beating creative heart of the endeavour — Ishii credits Gebelli with enabling Secret of Mana to become what it did.
“I often asked for impossible things, and Japanese programmers would say ‘No, we can’t do it,’ but Nasir just said, ‘leave me until tomorrow.’ He was doing completely crazy things: the sensation when flying over the game world with Flammy, for example; it’s him. Nobody had ever done that on the Super NES.”
Secret of Mana became legendary in its own right, and formed the foundation for numerous sequels and spin-offs in later years (including the recent Seiken Densetsu Collection for Nintendo Switch). During his time at Square, Koichi Ichii’s contributions weren’t limited to the Final Fantasy and Mana series, either; he also played a critical role in the SaGa Frontier team as the game’s planning chief, working alongside director and producer, Akitoshi Kawazu.
Koichi Ichii built an astoundingly successful career at Square. But his creative vision caused him to do something unusual: he left the safety and stability of a massive studio to create his own scrappy start-up. In 2006, Ichii founded Grezzo (officially styled “GREZZO”) in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Diamond in the rough
The company name was inspired by the Italian phrase “diamante grezzo”, meaning “diamond in the rough”. In thinking about how to name the newly-minted studio, Ichii considered the way a jeweller might polish a rough diamond into beautiful, finished jewellery. In the same way, he envisioned Grezzo taking rough ideas and crafting them into exceptional, polished game experiences. Another important quality that Ichii wanted to infuse into Grezzo’s culture was the idea of “rawness” — or, to put it another way, the idea that inexperience and humbleness can be a virtue. This was to be a company where creative boundaries should be challenged, which requires a culture that encourages raw creativity over rank and hierarchy.
Greezo’s first game, Line Attack Heroes for Wii, was revealed in playable form at E3 2009 and saw release in 2010. It was a cooperative title where players were tasked with exploring multiple levels to find pieces of crystal hidden by the game’s antagonist. The core gameplay concept was novel: as the player runs around and defeats enemies, they form a line of characters that trail the player’s avatar. Defeating a more powerful “hero” enemy enables the entire line to be used as a single weapon (which is somewhat reminiscent of The Wonderful 101, which was released several years later). As players progress through numerous stages, they can acquire more powerful heroes and swap between them to execute different attacks. The game wasn’t deeply strategic in nature, it was designed to provide a simple, addictive loop. It was an easily-accessible experience that made a lot of sense for the Wii; it’s no wonder, then, that Nintendo chose to publish the title. Line Attack Heroes was only the beginning of Grezzo’s relationship with Nintendo; the two companies were about to grow much closer.
Imagine that Satoru Iwata (former Nintendo president, who sadly passed away in 2015) calls you and says, “I need to talk to you, so please come to Kyoto.” I’d probably faint, but Koichi Ishii was intrigued. The call was sudden and mysterious. It turned out that Ishii’s instincts about the summons were right: Iwata had invited Ishii to Kyoto to see a top-secret project. It was brand new hardware, featuring a major new innovation: a glasses-free 3D display; the strange new platform would become known as the Nintendo 3DS. Ishii had mixed feelings about the conversation with Iwata in Kyoto; they had discussed the possibility of bringing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to the still-in-development 3DS. Iwata wanted Grezzo to develop the title, which would not simply be a port of the Nintendo 64 game —Grezzo were tasked with developing an entirely new version from the ground-up.
Ishii and his team were understandably nervous and excited at the same time. On the one hand, working with one of Nintendo’s most important franchises and developing a game for a brand-new platform presented an enormous opportunity.
But this was Zelda.
Ishii was highly conscious of both Ocarina of Time’s polish and pedigree and he was determined not to disappoint fans (or Nintendo, who would publish the game and closely supervise its development). The stakes were made that much higher due to the fact that the 3DS hardware was still in development. In essence, Grezzo were building a game against an ever-moving target. Nintendo appointed Takao Shimizu (from EAD Tokyo Software Development Department) to keep Grezzo abreast of the latest developments surrounding the 3DS hardware.
According to Takaaki Tonooka — a manager and developer at Grezzo — there was a great deal of trial-and-error involved in producing the game. It wasn’t just that Grezzo were working with 3D display technology, they were also designing entirely new models and animation. This meant that certain interactions from the original Nintendo 64 title simply broke down when the new models were used on the 3DS.
“Take the scene in which you set a spiderweb on fire [for example]. Lots of people, including me, have Link roll forward or swing his torch to light it, but some people use how the tip of the torch lowers when he is holding the shield. So when I heard that the fire wouldn’t light, I thought, “Uh-oh…this isn’t gonna be easy.”
When I looked into why the tip of the torch wouldn’t light the fire, I realized that Link’s arms and legs were longer and his waist higher, since we had designed him a little more to today’s styles. This had caused the angle between his sword and the ground to change, so the tip of the torch wouldn’t light the fire.”
Shin Moriya (Grezzo programmer)
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Grezzo team was the conflict between how players felt when they first experienced Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64 versus modern gamer expectations. How do you modernise an older game that occupies such a special place in players’ hearts?
At first, the Grezzo team were tempted to dive right into the details. But Ishii pulled them back; he was concerned that it would be too easy to tackle specific changes without stepping back to consider the broader experience. To that end, he ensured that the Grezzo team spent time with the Ocarina of Time developers to better understand their values and motivations at the time they were building the Nintendo 64 original.
Ishii also understood that achieving real success with the 3DS remake wouldn’t only be about understanding the original creators’ intentions. He recognised — importantly — that this was a game with years and years of real player experience involved. There were several people at Grezzo who were big fans of the original game, and so, when they played through the Grezzo version, Ishii and the team asked them how this new version differed from their memory of the original. What Ishii found interesting is that some players would describe being able to do certain things in-game that were actually the result of bugs in the original version. In order to make the new version feel more like its Nintendo 64 counterpart, the Grezzo team actually re-created many of the bugs — this time, they weren’t genuine bugs, but deliberate features built into the game. This is just one example of how careful the Grezzo team were to ensure that when players picked up the 3DS remake, it would still capture the feeling of playing the Nintendo 64 version in important — but often indescribable — ways.
The desire to retain the feeling of the original game was an important overriding factor, but a staunch approach to the source material wasn’t always desirable. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to remaking Ocarina of Time for the 3DS was that one of the Nintendo 64 version’s biggest issues could be corrected after 13 long years: the Water Temple.
“No matter how much praise The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has garnered, the Water Temple has always been an issue — like a bone caught in your throat for 13 years.”
One of the most frustrating elements of the Water Temple was related to the fact that players had to keep equipping and removing Link’s Iron Boots (in order to either float or sink while submerged). On the Nintendo 64, it was necessary to constantly dip in-and-out of menus, which felt cumbersome — on the 3DS, items could be swapped instantly thanks to software buttons on the touch screen. Nintendo had clearly been itching to “fix” the Water Temple for years; Eiji Aonuma, longtime producer for The Legend of Zelda series, felt disappointed that so many players simply “gave up” without finishing the tedious level.
Numerous other minor improvements were made to the game in order to make it slightly more accessible for newcomers (and, perhaps, for people who hadn’t played the game in the 13 years since original release). And, as much as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D itself was ultimately a great success for both Grezzo and Nintendo, Ishii saw an even greater benefit for Grezzo’s team:
“When I struck out on my own with Grezzo, I was extremely interested in the high quality of Nintendo’s games. I feel like I got a hint of what lies behind that by working on this game with Miyamoto-san, Aonuma-san, Shimizu-san, Haruhana-san and Takizawa-san.”
Ishii was particularly impressed by Shigeru Miyamoto; especially the way he was able to rapidly adopt multiple viewpoints, even completely throwing out old opinions as his view shifted. Miyamoto, Ishii thought, was someone who could encourage a large team to view a given situation from many angles all at once — he was uniquely able to imbue team members with his own sense of empathy for different ideas and ways of thinking. Ishii felt that Grezzo, by working so closely with Nintendo, could absorb a little of their magic.
Grezzo had impressed Nintendo; they had been proactive partners when it came to revitalising Ocarina of Time for modern audiences. It’s no surprise, then, that Nintendo sought Grezzo’s assistance with another Zelda title — this time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was to be remade for the 3DS. Where Ocarina of Time never had a director assigned to the project, Majora’s Mask was to be different. Development had actually commenced before Mikiharu Ooiwa was brought on as director. Ooiwa, a Grezzo employee, had been one of the lead designers for Ocarina of Time 3D. He had also been the supervisor for Line Attack Heroes. Ooiwa became the director in part because Eiji Aonuma’s time was now split between Majora’s Mask 3D and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and he believed that Majora’s Mask 3D required full-time focus.
The circumstances surrounding Majora’s Mask 3D were quite different than Ocarina of Time 3D. For one thing, the motivation to bring Majora’s Mask to 3DS was based, at least in part, on Shigeru Miyamoto’s belief that the original Nintendo 64 release had been too difficult for many players — as a result, there was a feeling that Nintendo’s developers had created a large amount of content that many people simply hadn’t experienced. Miyamoto also felt that the 3DS hardware design could naturally help to alleviate this problem, simply because players could close the system and put it to sleep if they faced a tough challenge, enabling them to take a break and return to the game later.
Shigeru Miyamoto had asked Eiji Aonuma to make a 3DS version of the game. Aonuma was hesitant, in part because he wasn’t particularly keen to revisit Majora’s Mask. In fact, Aonuma privately hoped that the conversation he’d had with Miyamoto would “go away”. When Aonuma hesitated about moving forward with the proposal, he was met with Miyamoto’s firm “nope”. As well as asking Aonuma to move forward with the project, Miyamoto insisted that he play the entire game over again — he wanted Aonuma to examine every corner of the experience, and identify any areas that would improve it for a modern audience.
It turns out that Aonuma did identify clear flaws in the design. In fact, he was quite surprised to find what he did. In particular, he observed that even when a Nintendo game becomes tough for the player, there’s always some motivation to drive them forward; he felt that Majora’s Mask often lacked both the motivation and payoff in terms of discovery. He also felt that the game was often opaque about its challenges — players might not always know why they failed, or the reason for not clearing a certain area might not be apparent. These were just some of the reasons why players gave up and didn’t keep playing. As Aonuma and his team played through the game again, they created a “what in the world” list — this was a list of things that simply didn’t make sense or needed to be changed in a new iteration of the game. Nintendo provided the list to Grezzo (whose team had already been playing through the game and taking lots of footage), and they expressed the desire for Grezzo to not just port the game — but to really consider significant design changes to improve the experience.
In truth, Grezzo were already way ahead of Nintendo. They’d been analysing all the footage they had collected, and were developing their own list of proposals around potential changes that might improve the game.
“So within our team we brainstormed on all sorts of new ideas that could be put into the game world of Majora’s Mask. We presented our ideas to Miyamoto-san through Aonuma-san towards the end of 2011.”
Grezzo were regularly on the receiving end of Eiji Aonuma’s profuse apologies. There were so many “what in the world” items on the combined Grezzo/Nintendo list, that Aonuma felt that need to apologise for — and then explain — each one of them as they arose. Aonuma often wondered aloud what he’d been thinking when he made Majora’s Mask; there were apparently so many areas that required an overhaul. But Ooiwa and his team worked diligently through each of the points with their Nintendo counterparts.
As much as the 3DS hardware enabled Grezzo to improve some perceived flaws in Majora’s Mask — especially related to aspects of the design that made the game more difficult for players — there was also an opportunity to add some delight factors as well. This was thanks in large part to the fact that, during the development of Majora’s Mask 3D, Nintendo provided Grezzo with a sneak preview of their next 3DS model — the New 3DS. This updated hardware contained a c-stick above the main face buttons, which could enable further enhancement to the game’s features. One great example is that Grezzo were able to add free camera movement to Majora’s Mask 3D; this was something that Aonuma specifically requested. Aonuma felt that free camera movement had been a great addition to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he saw the benefits of adding such a system to Majora’s Mask 3D.
“You expect the Moon to look bigger on the third day, but you can’t really see it. But now, you can enjoy gazing at the Moon whenever you want!”
Tomomi Sano (Nintendo project coordinator)
Aonuma’s request to add free camera movement to Majora’s Mask 3D came late in development and it presented an enormous technical and design challenge for the Grezzo team.
The entire original game had been designed with the idea of fixed camera positions — these positions would dynamically change based on where the player was in the world. The idea was that as you moved around, the camera would adjust itself to suit the environment and give you the best view — each of these positions and the rules governing them were individually programmed. There would be one camera position to show Link when he’s climbing a ladder, for example, and another position to follow him as he flies around as a Deku Scrub. Grezzo had to now figure out how to combine all of these individual camera programs with the new free movement camera system. Numerous thorny issues had to be resolved. For example, when Link goes through his transformations after changing masks, the camera positions would automatically adjust due to the differing heights of, say, regular Link and Goron Link. Because the camera positions were all pre-programmed originally, the developers could show the player only what they were allowed to see — but with a free camera system, players would be able to see anything at any time. This meant that Grezzo had to now consider the idea that players might be able to see things they simply weren’t supposed to see and all of these scenarios had to be catered for in the design.
Thanks to Grezzo’s talent and close collaboration with Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is the definitive version of the game. Through this collaboration, Nintendo were able to fully realise the experience they had intended to deliver many years prior on the Nintendo 64. Grezzo provided an opportunity to not just correct flaws in the original experience, but to uplift the entire player journey in a way that significantly improved the game on almost every level. Eiji Aonuma may have been hesitant to revisit Majora’s Mask given his many regrets about the N64 original, but he reflected positively on the experience of making Majora’s Mask 3D — this project, he felt, allowed him to resolve some longstanding issues that had been floating around in his mind for fifteen years.
Grezzo continued to work closely with Nintendo on other projects. After developing two very elaborate remakes of major Zelda titles, the Japanese duo built a third game in the franchise: The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes. This new title launched in late 2015, several months after Majora’s Mask 3D, and while it was also developed for 3DS, it couldn’t have been more different to the previous two projects. This was an entirely new entry in the Zelda franchise. It was a multiplayer-focused game that leveraged Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds engine, as well as several of that game’s assets. Nintendo regarded the title as something of a successor to The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (released for the GameCube in 2004). Although it could be played as a single-player experience as well, Tri-Force Heroes was really at its best when played with a full complement of three people. Unlike other Zelda games, Tri-Force Heroes didn’t offer a large world to explore at your leisure; rather, it presented a number of dungeon-based stages containing environmental and boss puzzles that required teamwork to solve. One of the most interesting aspects of the design was that all players shared a single pool of hearts (Zelda’s version of a life meter). This meant that if a single player took damage, the entire party would suffer the consequences
The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes represented Nintendo’s continued experimentation with multiplayer Zelda design. Although the game was directed by a Nintendo employee — Hiromasa Shikata — Grezzo played a central role in development, as their main responsibility related to the planning, design and implementation of the levels.
Though the symbiotic relationship between Grezzo and Nintendo was important, the Seiken Densetsu creators did not leave their RPG roots behind. Between 2015 and 2017, Grezzo contributed to two RPGs as co-developer (The Legend of Legacy and The Alliance Alive) and wholly developed their own action RPG (Ever Oasis). The Legend of Legacy and The Alliance Alive were based on designs by Grezzo, but were principally developed by Cattle Call, a Tokyo-based studio (which was mostly comprised of former Data East staff). Both games were published in Japan by FuRyu. Ever Oasis — released in mid-2017, was published by Nintendo.
The first of these titles — The Legend of Legacy — was an attempt to revisit classic JRPGs like Final Fantasy and the SaGa series — these titles directly inspired director Masataka Matsuura, a designer based at FuRyu. Matsuura wanted to appeal to older audiences, especially those who had enjoyed the “golden age” of JRPGs. As a result of his inexperience, however, Matsuura recruited both Kyoji Koizumi (a Grezzo employee with a serious game design pedigree — Koizumi had worked on greats like SaGa Frontier, Romancing SaGa, and several Final Fantasy games) and Tomomi Kobayashi, the illustrator responsible for most of the artwork and illustration in the SaGa series.
Given Matsuura’s desire to return to the golden age of JRPGs, The Legend of Legacy followed many of the genre’s tropes relatively faithfully — although it did turn several of these tropes upside down as a way of surprising experienced JRPG fans. At its core, The Legend of Legacy strongly encouraged exploration — in part by making the act of uncovering the map fun in itself, but also because the game deliberately put the player on a very long leash; that is, it was rarely explicit about what to do next, preferring instead to encourage players to stumble upon the major progression points themselves. Additionally, the developers injected numerous clever ideas into the battle system. For example, character stats weren’t tied to levels that increase with continued battling — in fact, The Legend of Legacy completely threw away a traditional levelling system, in favour of leveraging different battle stances and tactics during combat. Characters’ mastery of skills and techniques wasn’t based on stat increases at the end of battles, but rather, it was all about learning skills through actual use of various equipment — in theory, your characters already have all the necessary skills, they just have to be “unlocked” with ongoing practice and perseverance.
As much as The Legend of Legacy sought to take the magic of traditional JRPGs and then inject some healthy doses of innovation, there were some chasms that many reviewers simply couldn’t jump over. Although the exploration mechanic of uncovering the map dynamically was considered novel, many critics complained that there wasn’t actually a great deal to do in the world — or at least, there seemed to be very little payoff or reward for exploring. Characters, too, were considered to be largely flat and uninteresting; the idea, at least on paper, was that you’d really need to play through the game seven times — with the seven major characters — to see all of the plot. But in reality, each play through felt largely the same, save for some minor variations around dialogue and endings. Numerous problems with the game’s progression system and the way battles were balanced also did little to soften the reception; ultimately, The Legend of Legacy received average reviews at best.
The team behind The Legend of Legacy weren’t content to sit on their laurels; they listened to critical feedback and decided to create another RPG. This new game wasn’t intended to be a successor, but rather, it was an entirely new project born from the lessons learned the first time around. The Alliance Alive introduced further gameplay design changes, and attempted to improve one of the core weaknesses of its predecessor: the story. The Legend of Legacy had been penned by Chrono Trigger writer Masato Kato. This time around, though, director Masataka Matsuura recruited writer Yoshitaka Murayama (of Suikoden fame) to craft the plot. It was apparently the right decision, as The Alliance Alive’s reviews were, in general, slightly more positive. In particular, critics seemed to mostly agree that the plot and central campaign was dramatically better — and more memorable — than it had been in The Legend of Legacy. At the same time, The Alliance Alive was perhaps an example of “two steps forward, one step back”; although it featured and improved plot and a more ambitious battle system, many of its new components felt somewhat undercooked or incomplete. The visual design, too, seemed to be a step backwards, with the team opting for a more generic aesthetic (the main overworld and the towns were criticised in particular for being drab and bland in terms of art design).
Grezzo moved at a furious pace. Ever Oasis was released globally in 2017 and it marked the return of Ishii to the director’s chair. In fact, he acted as both director and a producer on the title. Ever Oasis was another exploration of the JRPG, but unlike its predecessors, the experience was recontextualised by virtue of its unique gameplay concept.
The protagonist — known as Tethu (male) or Tethi (female) —is tasked with creating an oasis within a harsh desert world called Vistrahda. Like other JRPGs, you’ll establish a party of characters and you’ll explore dungeons around the world. But what differentiated Ever Oasis was the town management experience that was layered on top of the more traditional JRPG underpinnings. Importantly, the interplay between town management and adventuring in the field was crucial — exploring the world and completing tasks for your villagers in turns helps you to further build up your town, which in turn provides access to new resources and capabilities, which in turn enhances your questing in the field.
To begin with, you’ll want to attract new villagers to your town. That’s the easy part; the tricky part is making sure they stay put, which is achieved by completing tasks in the world on their behalf. Villagers then become an integral component of both town upgrades and adventuring — they’ll settle down and open their own stores. There are various ways to attract new villagers in the first place, but typically you’ll be rescuing folks out in the world, who will return to your town to help you build it up. The activities you do out in the desert will directly benefit your town, and as your town grows (and its residents become happier), you’ll see several benefits that will enhance your desert-exploring abilities (such as an increasing health pool, and new abilities). Importantly, you can recruit people from within the town to join you on your adventures — as they explore with you, they’ll also level up and acquire new abilities.
Like Grezzo’s other in-house RPGs, Ever Oasis was generally well-received. Most outlets scored it similarly to The Alliance Alive, generally preferring it over The Legend of Legacy. Opinion among individual outlets was, at times, sharply divided: some reviewers found the parallel town management and dungeon crawling refreshing and satisfying, while others felt that the whole experience seemed shallow and bland — a similar criticism levelled at Grezzo’s other two RPGs.
Fright night (now in 3D!)
Nintendo is widely known for their experimentation. Of course, all game developers inevitably produce content that remains relegated to the cutting-room floor — but there are many examples where Nintendo’s experiments either become (or contribute significantly to) the final product. Sometimes, a failed experiment lies dormant for many years before the concept returns in some other form.
This is precisely what happened with the Nintendo 3DS and the idea of a glasses-free 3D display. Well before the debut of the 3DS, Nintendo had toyed with the idea in the form of a peripheral for the GameCube. In fact, Nintendo demonstrated a prototype at E3 2002 — they attached a small (roughly four-inch) 3D LCD display to a GameCube console. At the time, Nintendo were actively working on a major title that would take advantage of the display technology: Luigi’s Mansion. In the end, of course, Luigi’s Mansion 3D was never released — the 2D version became a GameCube launch title while its 3D sibling was shelved.
Nintendo faced two big challenges with the GameCube LCD project. One was simply the cost. Although the game designers at Nintendo were confident that they could produce compelling 3D experiences, LCDs were still highly expensive in the early ’00s. Many people at Nintendo believed that it would be difficult to convince consumers to purchase a highly expensive peripheral like this, no matter how great the games were. It was even suggested at one stage that the 3D LCD screen could be more expensive than the GameCube itself.
“During the days of the NES, though, we did release Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally and take on the challenge of 3D games with the Virtual Boy system. Everyone understood the possibilities. But we were painfully aware that unless it was fairly substantial, it wouldn’t really catch on.”
Satoru Iwata acknowledged that although Nintendo had continued to explore 3D display technology over many years, their past experiences had only served to increase skepticism within the company. Despite this, designers didn’t stop tinkering with 3D — at one stage, a team at Nintendo created a 3D demo based on Mario Kart Wii. This demo, perhaps more than any other, began to convince people throughout the company that it made sense to really push into 3D displays again. In particular, it was the hardware team who needed to be convinced, and it was up to people on the software side to build the demos that could do the heavy-lifting.
Although many games ultimately graced the 3DS, it seems fitting that a conversion of Luigi’s Mansion finally landed on the system in 2018. Once again, Nintendo partnered with Grezzo to produce the port — and once again, the term “port” is perhaps just a little reductive. As with the Zelda games, Grezzo weren’t simply taking an existing game and updating it to run on new hardware. Rather, Luigi’s Mansion offered a unique opportunity to completely revamp the graphics — and even some of the game mechanics — so that they would feel natively at home on the 3DS.
It’s obvious why Luigi’s Mansion was always considered for the 3D treatment. The entire game is presented as something like a diorama — we typically view the action from the same plane as Luigi himself; there’s no ability to move the camera up above Luigi or to zoom in and around him. Rather, the camera position is fixed and Luigi always remains in the centre of the screen. There’s a great sense of depth in the mansion, and Luigi is often moving either directly towards or away from the camera on the z-axis. This perspective is immediately well-suited to a stereoscopic 3D view. As well, objects in the world lend themselves to this perspective — whether it’s coins and banknotes fluttering around, curtains billowing in the wind, or ethereal ghosts fading in-and-out of view.
Just as with the Zelda titles on 3DS, Grezzo took the opportunity to fully-utilise the 3DS hardware to maximum effect. In the screenshot above, you can clearly see the benefits of having access to a second screen. Luigi’s Mansion leverages the lower screen to present an intuitive and useful map of the mansion, which tracks Luigi’s current position as well as clearly displaying where he’s previously been, which rooms have yet to be explored, and the location of locked doors.
On a technical level, just about everything changed. New, higher-resolution textures appear throughout, and the lighting model is entirely new— although in some cases, the effect isn’t necessarily an improvement from the GameCube original. Rather, the team at Grezzo had to utilise different techniques in some cases (especially lighting and shadows) due to the hardware differences (the GameCube, for example, relied heavily on its ‘EFB’ [embedded frame buffer] to effectively enable it to render two separate ‘layers’ before combining them in a final image — the 3DS lacks this capability).
Not all of Grezzo’s collaborations with Nintendo were big-budget reimaginings of classic games. Flower Town (known as StreetPass Garden in Japan, Australia, and the UK) is a downloadable 3DS title that revolves around creating a garden. The game stars your very own player-created Mii character, and it leverages the 3DS StreetPass system to enable you to gain assistance from other real-world players. The goal of the game is to grow 20 different varieties of plants, which is no easy feat — this is where StreetPass becomes important. You’ll need to bring other gardeners into your game and cross-pollinate your plants to produce new species.
Grezzo also worked on the enhanced DSiWare port of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords (officially titled The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition). This version of the game was produced to celebrate the Zelda franchise’s 25th anniversary. There are substantial changes in this edition, too. Originally, Four Swords was multiplayer-only experience; it required four players, each controlling their own Link, tackling dungeons cooperatively. Grezzo added a single-player mode to Anniversary Edition, enabling one player to control multiple Links and switch between them to progress. Two brand-new areas were added as unlockable stages, as well.
Finally, October 2015 saw the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes for the 3DS. This game — itself a direct sequel to A Link Between Worlds — was the first entirely new Zelda game that Grezzo worked on in collaboration with Nintendo EPD (Entertainment, Planning and Development Division). In several key respects, Tri Force Heroes is similar to Four Swords Adventures in the sense that it emphasises cooperative multiplayer. The game introduced several innovative features, such as the ability to “stack” characters on top of each other to form a kind of totem pole (useful for gaining access to higher platforms), the ability to change outfits (which in turn grant new abilities), and a shared health meter across all players. The game can be played through local or online multiplayer, and it also supports a single-player mode where your cooperators (known as “Doppels”) can all be controlled by the same player.
The team behind Tri Force Heroes wanted to build a multiplayer Zelda that emphasised “collecting” rather than simply progressing through a set of levels towards a final boss.
“With regards to collecting, in the DS games like Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass, each game had a component of collecting. In Phantom Hourglass, it was collecting boat parts; for Spirit Tracks, it was train parts. So this time, when were thinking, “What can we do with three people and collecting?” it ended up being outfits. So we think we’re not detouring too much from that original collecting aspect in other Zelda games.”
Hiromasa Shikata (Nintendo director)
The game also featured a unique communication system, which played a significant role in online multiplayer. Initially, the team had considered utilising voice chat. But internal testing demonstrated — perhaps unintuitively — that voice chat actually wasn’t the most effective way for players to communicate. This became evident when a highly experienced player paired up with a novice. The experienced player would be inclined to simply tell the novice player exactly what to do: “Just do this. Do that.” It wasn’t terribly fun. In response, the team came up with a simple panel of options — kind of like Link emojis — which could enable communication with a degree of abstraction, making it more engaging (and slightly open to interpretation: Eiji Aonuma argued that it was like using the Facebook “Like” button, in the sense that the ultimate meaning in each situation is slightly enigmatic).
Awakening the future
One of the inevitable hurdles writing a piece like this is that Grezzo isn’t some relic of the past; it’s a thriving company that will no doubt work on many more projects over the coming years. Perhaps its best work is to come; who knows. In any case, it seems fitting that Grezzo’s current project — the one they are busily crafting as I write this — is its biggest yet.
Nintendo revealed The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Switch console as part of their February 2019 Nintendo Direct presentation. What they didn’t say at the time — but what we now know for sure — is that Grezzo is the developer behind the project. As with their previous Zelda titles, Grezzo is completely re-building Link’s Awakening from the ground up. Only this time, it is a far broader undertaking — the original game debuted on the Game Boy way back in 1993. So, this remake is certainly about far more than high-definition textures and improved controls; the entire game is being built from the ground-up in 3D specifically for the Nintendo Switch.
And, as one might expect, this new version of the game brings with it numerous significant gameplay changes. Perhaps the most notable is the ability to craft your own dungeons. While not quite on the level of Super Mario Maker, the Chamber Dungeons are nonetheless a significant part of the experience. It turns out that Nintendo had been thinking about providing the tools for players to build their own dungeons for a while — but now, finally, Link’s Awakening provides the right context to make it work.
“So, while we wanted a way for players to arrange their own dungeon, we thought a 3D dungeon would be harder for players to manage. However, Link’s Awakening is always viewed from the top and each room in the dungeon is the same size; making it easier for the player. There’s a lot of ways you can do something called “dungeon arrangement,” but we wanted to make it so it’s more like solving a puzzle. We wanted to make it accessible for everyone.”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is due to launch globally on September 20th 2019. It marks another important milestone in Grezzo’s history; not simply as another partner to Nintendo, but as a development studio entrusted with one of the company’s biggest and most important franchises.
In many respects, the story of Grezzo is also the story of Koichi Ishii himself. IGN once designated Ishii as one of the top 100 best game creators of all time. And he has been acknowledged for his pioneering work on everything from the adoption of Mode 7 graphics to the introduction of the active real-time battle system. Ishii had a comfortable job at Square, having built a successful and enviable career in the video game industry. But his vision and boldness were too large to simply remain safe; perhaps his close collaboration with Nasir Gebelli had taught him that nothing was truly impossible. The same boldness that motivated Ishii to leave Square and build Grezzo has also now firmly established his growing studio as as an integral right-hand to the world’s oldest and most influential game company. Kudos, Ishii-san.