The Senran Kagura series famously - and perhaps apocryphally - began life when its creator, Kenichirō Takaki, decided that the Nintendo 3DS' stereoscopic display was destined to display one thing over all else: breasts. Setting to work to fulfill his dream, Takaki-san produced two tales of shapely schoolgirl shinobi for the system, which were packaged together and brought Westward as Senran Kagura Burst in 2013.
Following Burst's successful Western début, Marvelous and XSEED are working together to bring over its direct sequel - Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson for the 3DS - along with spinoff Estival Versus for the PS4 and Vita. It's a controversial franchise that's prompted calls for boycotts and bans in various countries, as it's a series that's explicitly sexual in nature. If you don't approve of the very concept of games like this, Senran Kagura 2 will do nothing to assuage that viewpoint.
Despite that it's looking to be a big year for this busty brawler series, and we had the opportunity to sit down with producer-creator Takaki-san last month at E3 to talk Senran Kagura, sexual storytelling, balance in design, and crafting the perfect ecchi game.
First of all, could you introduce Senran Kagura 2?
We started out on the 3DS with Senran Kagura Burst, and Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson will be the direct sequel to that. It picks up from where Burst left off, with more action, a bigger story, and new central themes. For Senran Kagura 2, the idea was just to make everything more powerful as a whole.
One of the big new features of Senran Kagura 2 is the pair mechanic, where the shinobi can pair up and fight together. Can you talk about how that fits into both the gameplay and the story?
For the gameplay, Senran Kagura is an action game at heart, so our goal [in Senran Kagura 2] was just to make it more fun and more enjoyable to play. When I was thinking about how to do that, I kept coming back to what kinds of movement the ninjas could use, and what kinds of combos they could pull off in different situations. We wanted to add more variety to both those aspects, and by putting in another character and letting players switch back and forth, we ended up with a new playstyle and new combos that add more to the action game feel.
For the story, in Burst there were ten characters, and it was five against five, with the two different school factions going against each other. But in Senran Kagura 2, they join together to try and defeat a bigger enemy. That's actually been a very common storytelling device in Japan for a long time, where two factions come together to accomplish a larger goal - I'm not sure if that's a familiar story in America as well, but that's the main reason we wanted to implement the pair mechanic and new combo systems in the game.
In Burst, the huge boss battle with Orochi at the end was a real standout - how are bosses handled in Senran Kagura 2?
Orochi was definitely one of the things we wanted to concentrate on, so it plays a big role in Senran Kagura 2. In fact, we have four different types of big boss monsters [in Senran Kagura 2], so I think players will be pleasantly surprised. I also want to mention that they're all female Orochi too, so if you look closely you'll notice they'll have a feminine form, with breasts and everything. I just had to point that out!
One aspect I think a lot of people were surprised about in Senran Kagura Burst was how engaging, and often serious, the visual novel portion of the game was. Can you talk about your approach to that side of Senran Kagura, and how Senran Kagura 2 expands on the storytelling of Burst?
So, first and foremost, I want - I need, really - to create a game that's actually a solid game, and not just a vehicle for sexual content. I didn't want to make a half-assed game with cute girls fighting and their clothes ripping off for no reason, just because it's visually pleasing. I wanted there to be a reason why they're fighting, and why each individual is different. I wanted to have a story that explains why they're fighting, why their clothes are ripping off, why the sexual aspects are there - I always want there to be a reason why. And because of that core essence, that reason why, players can relate to each of the characters, and I can tell a bigger story.
For Senran Kagura 2, the story continues from Burst, but a lot has happened since then - it's a whole new chapter, and everything is on a much larger scale. For those who have played and enjoyed Burst, I think you'll really enjoy playing Senran Kagura 2 - there are a lot of surprises in it that even veteran players won't be expecting. And of course, the translation by XSEED is excellent!
The translation in Burst was definitely a huge part of the appeal - what has it been like localizing Senran Kagura with XSEED?
I guess since I don't speak English, I can't really oversee that aspect directly, but for my part, I try to make a really solid story that won't be too difficult to understand. From there I completely trust XSEED - after the English version is done, I can't go through and personally see if it's a correct translation, but I know that the fans really enjoy it, and one of the things I often hear [from Western fans] is that the localization is excellent. And Senran Kagura isn't the first series I've worked together with XSEED on, either - we also worked together on Half-Minute Hero. So from that experience, I know that they do great localization, and that's really important for Senran Kagura - it has a balance of sexual and serious tones, but I know that they understand what I'm trying to say, and I rely on them completely for that.
Between the juxtaposition of the sexy and serious tones, the Hanzo and Hebijo schools, and the Yin and Yang fighting styles, it seems like balance is a big theme of the Senran Kagura series in general. How does the idea of balance play into your game design philosophy?
With Senran Kagura, I really want to concentrate on passionate, strong storytelling, but at the same time I want to concentrate on the sexual aspects as well. But I don't just want to make a solely sexual game, because that's not what Senran Kagura is all about. It ends up being a really fine line, deciding which parts to focus on, and I can't necessarily pinpoint exactly where that line is and how I walk it, but I think it's just that I'm constantly considering all of these aspects as I go. Luckily, we've been able to make Senran Kagura into a series as well, so now I'm able to tell a bigger overarching story and keep that balance across different games.
Also in terms of balance, I know that for some players, the original reason for going into Senran Kagura might have been the sexual themes - even if that was their first step into the game, I hope they'll be able to balance that by feeling something else, through the characters or through the story, and become invested in the characters and the whole story, beyond just the sexual aspects.
Along with the sexual aspects, the Senran Kagura games seem wrapped up in a very traditional Japanese aesthetic - can you talk a little about the art design of the series?
Well, there are parts of Senran Kagura that I think about in terms of a traditional Japanese aesthetic, but more than anything, people tend to forget that the girls are actually ninjas! (Laughs) Ninjas conjure up a very specific image of old-school Japan, so it's really just to add on to that - I don't really try to think too much about making the games look traditionally Japanese, it's just an extension of what ninjas are.
Thinking of the Senran Kagura series as a whole, with the main side-scrolling brawlers on 3DS and the more arena-fighter-style Versus games on Playstation, how do those two branches fit together? Are there things you can do in one format that you can't in the other?
Simply put, I try to tackle different stories in each of them. They're both within the Senran Kagura umbrella, but you get to see a different side of the series with each kind of game.
So far, we've had Senran Kagura beat-'em-ups, rhythm games, and card games - what other genres would you like to take Senran Kagura to?
Hmm… I think I'd like to try a dodgeball game. And a water gun third-person shooter!
Senran Kagura x Splatoon?
Exactly! (Laughs) With lots of wet T-shirts!
Following on from that, whether it's an action game, dodgeball sim, or water gun shooter, as a creator and a player, what do you think makes a great ecchi game?
Well, back in the day, when I was a kid, there were always lots of ecchi games that were basically created with the idea that if you put in any kind of sexual content, it would sell. And for most of these games, it felt like they didn't have any real substance - there was the ecchiness, but the game itself wasn't any fun. I know this for a fact, because I bought plenty of these games, and most of them were disappointing! It made me sad.
Like I said, the sexual part can be a first step, the aspect that gets someone to actually pick up and play the game, but at its core, the game still needs to be fun. As long as the game is fun, you can add on anything else. It could be a completely new genre or type of game, but in my mind: I love games, I love girls, and I love sexy stuff. I just try to concentrate hard on each of those things, and make each of those aspects come out in one game. I think it's just a matter of putting that much love into it.
After putting so much love into Senran Kagura, do you have a favourite shinobi?
My favourite is definitely Hibari. Mainly for the way she looks and her personality - she's totally my type!
Is there anything you still want to do with Senran Kagura that you haven't been able to yet?
There are lots of new aspects I want to add to the series, and lots more stories I want to tell. If you play Senran Kagura 2 and Estival Versus, you might get a glimpse of what I'm trying to say, but there's still a lot more story that I want to dive into!
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Well, I think you did a pretty good job covering everything, but what kind of breast size do you like best?
(Nervous laugh) Um, I'd say my preference falls on the smaller end of the spectrum. And yourself?
(Takaki-san smiles and points to a poster featuring the ninjas of Senran Kagura 2)
We'd like to thank Takaki-san for his time, and Jimmy Soga (XSEED Product Manager) for translating. Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson will be released in Europe, Australia/New Zealand, and North America this Summer.