Meet the pioneering Japanese indie behind La-Mulana
Given its own long history, and the longer history of the games to which it’s a love letter, it’s a surprise that there’s still nothing out there quite like La-Mulana.
Sure, Spelunky references some of the series’ atmospheric tomb-raiding and its whip and bats, but it replaces La-Mulana’s puzzle-solving with flowing platformer action. And from Demon’s Souls on, there are other challengingly enigmatic exploration-based games which delight on springing fatal traps on the unwary. But they don’t quite follow La-Mulana’s surprisingly powerful combination of crushing difficulty and lighthearted weirdness.
And that’s also despite the second game, La-Mulana 2, which was released in July, went through a protracted development cycle, having been announced way back in 2013 and successfully Kickstarted in February 2014. Though it's built up a cult following since the first game came out in 2005, La-Mulana has proved a tough act to follow.
What *has* happened during the sequel’s production is a resurgence of the metroidvania, the genre that La-Mulana most neatly fits into, and that, according to director and designer Takumi Naramura (pictured), was something of a stroke of luck.
Catching the Metroidvania wave
“We were worried that people would stop caring about the game during the stretched development period,” he tells us. “But we were really lucky to be able to release the game right around the time that a few other indie games such as Chasm, which had similarly spent a long time in development and which is of a somewhat similar genre, were also announced and were getting lots of attention.”
"We’ve created this with the belief that while times and trends may change, there are always going to be players who want games with real challenge to them."
La-Mulana is a different take on the metroidvania than Chasm, Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest. Really, it’s a tribute to the genre’s origins, specifically the tradition of Japan-developed exploration-based platformers that found particular expression on MSX with games like Ryouhei Shogaki’s The Maze of Galious, which in turn followed its earliest inspirations, such as Robert Jaeger’s Montezuma’s Revenge.
And that means La-Mulana shares and celebrates the aesthetic of difficulty on which that generation of games was built.
“I feel like La-Mulana by nature isn’t the sort of game that offers simple and kind guidance like recent games,” says Naramura. “It’s an old-school kind of game, and we’ve created this with the belief that while times and trends may change, there are always going to be players who want games with real challenge to them.”
He’s right, of course. La-Mulana was remade for Wii in 2011, finally officially released outside Japan in 2012 (before then, it was playable in English through a fan translation patch) and ported to PlayStation Vita in 2015. Over that long life, as well as the sequel’s five years in development, countless other games have explored the idea of difficulty and player-driven progression, particularly by roguelikes and the Souls series.
Still, Naramura, along with co-creators duplex and Samieru, who together form developer Nigoro, wanted to smooth some of the original’s rough edges for the sequel. “A lot of fans of the first game had been telling us, ‘Make it harder!’ but that would’ve likely posed a problem for potential new fans,” he says.
La-Mulana 2 therefore has a less abruptly challenging opening section than its predecessor, giving players several areas to explore before monsters turn up. “We’ve designed the beginning to be way more user-friendly and simple than you would’ve thought possible considering the previous game. But that’s just the beginning of the game; it gets much harder pretty quickly.
But, he is quick to say, its difficulty is not unfair. Every puzzle has hints, if you’re willing to keep an eye out for them. The controls, too, are updated, the original’s stiff jump gaining greater air control and fluidity, and it generally feels more immediately better in the hands.
“It’s to let players focus on the puzzle-solving that they came to La-Mulana for in the first place,” says Naramura. “It’s often categorized as a metroidvania, but while it contains some metroidvania-characteristic features such as using items to expand your range of activity, I feel that La-Mulana’s most characteristic feature is solving puzzles to expand this range of activity.”
“This is connected to the stuff I personally work on,” he continues. “But the mix of ancient ruins and old mythology and the general atmosphere of the ruins themselves seem to be really popular with people who’ve played the game. I spent a lot of time and effort choosing and fine-tuning the world settings and the atmosphere of the ruins, so I’m really happy to hear this.”
For Nigoro, making a sequel to La-Mulana was not inevitable. Though the team came up with a story for a follow-up while making the Wii version and gradually refined it over the following years, it was Nigoro’s lack of funds that pushed it to turn to Kickstarter, and crowdfunding meant the need to capitalize on La-Mulana’s recognition to achieve its $200,000 funding target.
“To us, as people who had put out a game that was really highly received but for which you couldn’t really call the amount of money we’d managed to collect a ’success’, we felt that taking on Kickstarter was something we’d have no choice but to do, as a Kickstarter campaign would help to get overseas players aware of and interested in the game.”
After all, Naramura says that the series’ success so far has mostly been focused in the West.
“The preparations we needed to get done in order to succeed were about as hard as actually putting the game itself together,” he continues. “But being able to get supportive comments from backers even as we kept stretching the development period really was an immense help for us mentally and emotionally.”
It's getting easier to be an indie in Japan, but there's room to grow
The Kickstarter campaign, from its video to its backer updates, shares the same tradition Nigoro developed to communicate with its fans way back when it was known as GR3 Project, a hobbyist maker of Flash games. As a small studio, the team figured that weekly intimate updates that were honest about the less positive aspects of making games would be a way of developing a following.
“I believe that this is what helped us to gather such a passionate fanbase here in Japan,” says Naramura.
And as Nigoro’s ambition scaled up, it seemed natural to continue with it, now in English, too. Naramura says that it’s easier than it’s ever been for a Japanese indie studio to release a game in the rest of the world, and Nigoro enjoys the support of Tokyo-based publisher Playism, but there are still huge barriers, the most important being the fact that he can’t speak English.
Takumi Naramura, director and designer of La-Mulana and La-Mulana 2
“We can’t forget that there are still lots of people out there who don’t know us yet. We need to remember that most people still have no idea what La-Mulana is, who Nigoro is, or who I am. As such, I want to make sure to do everything I possibly can in taking the ‘overseas challenge’. What would be best is if there could be some kind of fan-based event overseas, but cost-wise, that would be pretty difficult.
“Looking at people’s tweets, we can see that there are people in places like China, Korea, Russia, and the Middle East who are playing our games. Since we still don’t even have a solid grasp on exactly how popular our game is or how widely we’re known in North America and Europe, we have absolutely no idea what the situation is like in these other countries. I’d really love to experience going to those regions myself and see what it’s like.”
The Japanese indie scene still lags behind those found in the west, but it was almost non-existent when Nigoro first formed. “Back when indies were really big on Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare in North America and Europe, most people in Japan had no idea how to go about even getting into the scene,” Naramura says.
Nigoro was better-placed to see what was to come. It rose in the early 00s from a website Naramura set up to celebrate the games and game creation tools that he grew up with. Not allowed consoles, his parents had bought him a home computer. “But I’ve got almost zero experience actually studying programming, and I spent years as a kid filling up notebooks with ideas for worlds for huge-scale games that would never come to anything.”
Through the website he met two programmers who also saw the rise of Flash, and they began to make games for themselves. “We predicted that someday soon you’d be able to purchase and download games online, and we started working as Nigoro.”
12 years later, though, with La-Mulana 2 shipped on PC and announced to release on PS4, Switch and Xbox One next spring, one of the founding team, duplex, has decided to step back from core game development. A new programmer has joined, but Naramura, apparently set on retaining the individualist spirit that’s taken Nigoro through to today, is reticent about growing and bringing in younger staff.
“I doubt the style we’ve got going for us now is ever going to change. We create what we feel we want to create with our small team.
“We’ve got an insane amount of ideas, so of course we’d like to create new games. But first we have to do what we can to sell La-Mulana 2 to ensure that we’ll have the money to do that. We’re really confident that if we made any of these ideas into actual games, they’d be really fun.”