From the Akira Toriyama Project to Secret of Mana: the making of the sequel to a Game Boy game

Cover art painted by Hiroo Isono / 磯野 宏夫 (1945 - 2013)

In spring 1991, at the end of the development of Final Fantasy IV, the developers of Square Tokyo were divided into 4 teams of development: the Final Fantasy V team, the Romancing Saga team, the "simulation" team directed by Kazuhiko Aoki (Hanjuku Hero) and the MaruTori team, in charge of the "Toriyama Akira Project".
It was already some time that Sakaguchi had the idea to work with Akira Toriyama. As soon as Final Fantasy III was released, he met Kazuhiko Torishima, Toriyama's editor and initiator of the first Dragon Quest. A gamer in his own right, Torishima didn't mince his words when talking about the first three installments of Square's series.

"He had played the first three Final Fantasy games and every time he told me that they sucked, sucked, sucked," says Sakaguchi, "but obviously it was for my own good, not to put me down. He was the one who explained to me the importance of the characters, the setting and the narration. He taught me a lot, and it was from Final Fantasy IV that I was able to express the emotions of the protagonists much better. "

Some time after having established a contact with Torishima, his protege Toriyama went to Square's offices to meet Hiromichi Tanaka, future producer of Secret of Mana. He was asked to create the characters for an RPG called MaruTori project, also known as Maru Island.

A few months earlier, Shinichi Kameoka left his then job without knowing what he was going to do next, until he came across an artwork painted by Yoshitaka Amano for Final Fantasy. He had already played games like Dragon Quest or Castlevania and was familiar with Square's series, but didn't know much about the video game industry or even the name of the company that developed the series. Because of his interest in art and after looking through a job magazine featuring an article about Square, he decided to join the company.

The first task that Hironobu Sakaguchi entrusted to him consisted in buying about twenty Super Famicom in Akihabara with the car of a colleague in order to debug Final Fantasy IV. After completing the debugging phase, Kameoka was assigned to the MaruTori project and he trained to reproduce Akira Toriyama's style in pixel art. Toriyama had already started to make concept art for the game and sent it to the development team, but the team soon ran into two problems. The first one is that the mangaka's schedule had been changed at the last minute. He intended to finish Dragon Ball with the Freezer arc, but his editor didn't see it that way and asked him to continue his series for another year (which will turn into 4 years). So he wouldn't have been able to fully commit to a project with Square for at least a year.
The second problem - the main one according to Hiromichi Tanaka - was the machine on which their game was meant to run.

"We were working on the project, but along the way we learned that Nintendo was working with Ken Kutaragi of sony to make a CD-ROM drive explains Tanaka. It was called the "Nintendo Play Station". We decided to make it a launch title."

On May 29, 1991, the news that Nintendo had decided to team up with Philips to produce its future CD-ROM player leaked to the press and was made official two days later at the Consumer Electronic Show, forcing Sony to review its plans for the Play Station, which was initially postponed.
The MaruTori project was put on hold and the development team had to quickly find a replacement project. They decided to create an Action RPG for Super Famicom, at a time when turn-based RPGs were selling better than Action RPGs in Japan. The type of game chosen by the team leads Hiromichi Tanaka to use the Seiken Densetsu brand, whose first episode released on Game Boy (renamed Mystic Quest in Europe) had been quite successful. Their goal was to do better than Zelda.

The Seiken Densetsu 2 project (known as Secret of Mana in the West) was thus started with a very small team composed in part of newcomers. A character design contest was held within the team to chose the main characters. Kameoka designed Randy and Prim while Tetsuya Takahashi submited an early design of Popoi. However, it is Kameoka who animated the 3 main characters and 2 bosses (Hexas and Wall Face), while Yasuyuki Narushima supervised the creation of the monsters and Shinichiro Okaniwa animated some of the non-playable characters (NPC). Among the NPCs in the game is the vendor Moti, a reference to an Indian restaurant of the same name that the developers often visited during development.

An intermediate version of the design of the 3 playable characters: Popoi, Randy and Prim.

While Kameoka completed his work on time - the graphics must be completed before the end of the programming phase, which includes integrating these graphics - the game was delayed due to Square's lack of experience in action-oriented games and more specifically due to a bug that caused slowdowns and flashes when a monster appeared. Nasir Gebelli, programmer of the first 3 episodes of Final Fantasy, was given the task to correct this bug.

The game was released in August 1993 and sold nearly 1.5 million copies worldwide. Kameoka was given 2 months of vacations and, on his return, the developers of Square, whose number soared in a few years, were divided into 6 development teams (+ the one located in the Osaka studio), each with the goal of producing a game that crosses the million-unit sales mark. The games in question: Final Fantasy VI, Romancing Saga 3, MaruTori Project / Chrono Trigger, Live A Live, a secret project with Nintendo (which turned out to be Super Mario RPG) and Seiken Densetsu 3. Only half of the developers of Seiken Densetsu 2 (about ten, including Kameoka) were assigned to its sequel, which was released two years later.

Hiromichi Tanaka's memories seem to be a bit hazy regarding what happened to the original MaruTori project and its assets. According to one version, only the idea of a collaboration with Toriyama survived (a version that seems to go along with what Kameoka says), while in another interview he explains that the characters created by the mangaka were used for Seiken Densetsu 2.

"We waited, but the project couldn't move forward on CD-ROM. At that time, we took a year to develop each of our games, but even after two years, this one was not released. So we had no choice but to take the characters created by Toriyama and put them into a game developed on cartridge. That game was Seiken Densetsu 2. We wanted to stay in touch with Toriyama until the Nintendo CD-ROM was ready, so we decided to continue production of that game under the name Chrono Trigger.
We then worked on Chrono Trigger for over a year, but as you know, the Nintendo CD-ROM drive was never released. We then decided to transfer the project to cartridge, and Kazuhiko Aoki and his team worked hard to finish it."

While Shinichiro Okaniwa worked on Chrono Trigger (he worked as a graphic designer on Enhasa, the Mammon machine, Johnny's car and Zeal), it wasn't the case for Kameoka. After Seiken Densetsu 3, he worked on Saga Frontier and Legend of Mana before leaving Square to found Brownie Brown, the company behind games such as Magical Vacation, Sword of Mana and Magical Starsign, all illustrated by Kameoka.

The final version of the game's characters, drawn by Shinichi Kameoka / 亀岡慎一.

Sprite sheets of these characters, drawn by Shinichi Kameoka.

The 2 bosses that Shinichi Kameoka animated.

Non-playable characters animated by Shinichiro Okaniwa.

Mock-up made by Kameoka for a promotional flyer.

Bonus: illustrations made by various artists for the July 1993 issue of Hippon Super magazine.

Hitoshi Yoneda / 米田仁士

Masaya Hokazono / 外薗 昌也

Masaki Takahashi / 高橋政輝

Yoshimiru / よしみる

Mila Aizawa / 相沢美良

How Kameoka joined Square:
Final Fantasy IV debugging
Hiromichi Tanaka - Seiken Densetsu Music Complete Book
Seiken Densetsu 2 & 3 + Square's internal organization
Kazuhiko Torishima and Hironobu Sakaguchi
Tetsuya Takahashi designed Popoi: Art of Mana
Hiromichi Tanaka, Seiken Densetsu 2 and Chrono Trigger
Shinichiro Okaniwa - NPC
Mock-up created by Kameoka for a promotional flyer
sprite sheets
Seiken Densetsu 2 remake ?

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