Shin'en Multimedia is a name that'll be familiar to keen Nintendo download gamers, releasing a series of highly regarded titles across WiiWare, the 3DS eShop and the Wii U eShop. The studio is typically praised for extracting impressive performance from Nintendo's hardware, producing some of the best-looking games on each respective store and also showing a focus on smooth performance. In an age when sloppy visuals and choppy framerates are a regular curse on Nintendo hardware, Shin'en remains as one of the eShop's most reliable developers.
Over recent years it's also begun to establish key brands with sequels and remixes across platforms, such as Nano Assault, Jett Rocket and Art of Balance. The company's current project is perhaps one to capture the imagination of its most eager fans, however, with FAST Racing NEO providing a sequel to WiiWare release FAST — Racing League.
We sat down for a chat with Martin Sauter, Art Director at Shin'en Multimedia, and kicked off with a look at the studio's ongoing relationship with Nintendo and its roots in the company's retail past.
When the company started we were big Nintendo fans, 20 years ago; we were lucky enough to get connected to the Nintendo office, and from then on we started building a really good relationship. As always with friends you can work really well, so we didn't look for anyone else and there was no big reason for us to look elsewhere.
We like the Nintendo formula for games, and like so many other developers we try to look at their games and combine it with the way we think games can be fun, and I think in the past it worked well. We always work to be better and better.
Though the studio did work in retail, it's probably fair to say that the Shin'en brand only became widely familiar once it made strides as an early force on WiiWare. It's easy to forget how big a deal the Wii Shop was to the system's owners when it first arrived, and though WiiWare — and particularly its tough terms on revenue — have been criticised retrospectively, it was nevertheless a successful platform for Shin'en.
To be honest, we were quite happy with the WiiWare shop; I can't speak for others but we always had a good relationship. To go back to the past we started with retail games, and we just went to digital publishing when the opportunity was there, and Nintendo was one of the first to offer this to small companies like us. We were very happy to have the opportunity and the chance, and the eShop has improved and made things better.
Nintendo's doing a great job, especially for smaller companies, exposing our games to the public.
As we highlighted above, Shin'en is increasingly establishing itself with specific brands, with its years of experience enabling it to move beyond relying on experimentation with every release. Deciding on what to do next, a big decision for a small company, is driven by a combination of what consumers appear to desire, but also the ambitions of the team itself.
It's easier if you see something that works in feedback from reviews, comments, Twitter and so on, if people like stuff and want to see it we then come up with a sequel. It's not like it's just about making it easy for ourselves, but thinking "we can do that" and it works. That's the way it sometimes evolves.
On the other side it's sometimes something that we want to do, FAST is an example. We liked the first FAST game and some core players seemed to think it was pretty good, so we thought with the Wii U we now have the graphical capabilities to capture this game in HD at 60 frames per second. In a way we don't see — on any console — games like this, as everyone seems focused, right now, on realistic games like DriveClub.
Shin'en's comments on 60 frames per second take us back to earlier statements on drawing some lessons from Nintendo itself; the big N has been one of very few developers to emphasize 60 FPS performance in this current generation. It's not just down to below-par ports to Wii U or 3DS, either, as many titles on PS4 and Xbox One — the majority, it seems — are aiming for 1080p with a framerate capped at 30 FPS. While appreciating a resolution difference can be dependent on a closer look or the quality of a display, framerate leaps out — try Mario Kart 8 in single or two-player and then switch to 3-4 player action, and the difference between 60 and 30 FPS is striking. Sauter explained that "60 frames is basic to racing", also emphasizing that it's the " key factor of the game" in FAST Racing NEO.
As for the progress of the project, Shin'en released some screens earlier in the year, though continues to avoid sharing a release window outside of its own walls. There's little doubt that it's a major undertaking, though the focus is now on producing content rather than the core foundation.
Definitely, it is the biggest project we've worked on for a long time. It's just much more work to get that quality level of racing on consoles this generation has given us, so we have to look at; we can't deliver at a level below that. The Wii U is a great machine, so we need to add so many things to hit that level and we're pretty sure we can achieve that, but it takes time to build it up and put it together. We're in a good way though, we have something running and the gameplay is fine, so we just need to add content.
The core of the game is basically done. It's just content now, which is a lot of work. We're small, it needs time, but I'm very optimistic that you'll see something that Nintendo console fans can be happy with.
Any project that promises futuristic vehicles travelling at terrific speed can prompt Nintendo fans to dream of F-Zero, Nintendo's long-neglected franchise. The comparison isn't a particularly accurate one, however, and Sauter was keen to explain how Shin'en aims to deliver speed and excitement, but in its own way.
We are big fans of F-Zero. In terms of racers that's actually why we started the FAST project on Wii. We respect the work they did on that project but every project is different; they have their own formula and, to be honest, if you play F-Zero and then FAST they're very different, it's a different mechanic. We, as fans, respect that franchise so much, but it's a Nintendo franchise and you'd need to talk to them about that one.
Futuristic racing is a basic comparison between these games. But we'll have much more realistic graphics, realistic physics, we have a totally new renderer, post effects, everything you see in the best next-gen games. Some of these things work out well, some not, but we do everything we can to have this effect, while games like F-Zero are bit more cartoonish or unrealistic in terms of physics, and don't work like our game.
So with our game you can expect it to be really fast, with crazy ideas, but it's always in a realistic, believable world. That's something we discovered when we moved into HD and started working with 3D scanning, that we can be realistic, allowing us to achieve a certain kind of detail. If you can do things like jumping everywhere, it's not believable, so we have to stay in a certain universe and not go over a certain point.
Sometimes that's the kind of thing we discover while working on and developing the game, which can take a number of months to get another idea; you never know what can happen. Even with a lot of development experience, there are always new challenges, but we know we're on the right track now; that's why we're narrowing our timetable down so we know when it'll be finished.
Beyond that, and in a spell when a number of retail publishers and developers have moved away from the Wii U, the recent release of Nano Assault Neo-X on PS4 was a rare step away from Nintendo's hardware, albeit with a fresh iteration of a Wii U launch title. Sauter was keen to emphasize that the company isn't moving away from Nintendo, however.
Nobody needs to be afraid that we'll go away and start developing our games purely for other platforms. Sometimes we might use an opportunity to show other people games on their consoles, but we think that by sharing these games we can show more, and maybe some of these gamers will go to Nintendo. We're very happy with Nintendo and hope to stay that way for a long time into the future.
Quite when we'll be blasting around the track in FAST Racing NEO is an unknown, beyond the fact it'll more-than-likely be in 2015. Perhaps patience will reward us, however, as there's the promise that Shin'en Multimedia is working to deliver the best racer possible; that's surely the most important focus.
We set ourselves a high bar. We're sure if we can hit our level and bring that through in the game, I'm pretty sure it'll be an outstanding game on the eShop and really show off the capabilities of the Wii U platform. We hope we can deliver the best eShop title.
We'd like to thank Martin Sauter for his time.