Occasionally, the stories behind game development are as interesting as the stories told by games. That’s likely the case for HORGIHUGH, a shooter created by Sasaki “PiXEL” Hide. Described as a “modern retro” title, HORGIHUGH’s lead character is based on an actual dog adopted after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, signifying resilience and quite possibly, conveying a message of acceptance. We spoke with Sasaki-san about inspiration, working with Konami/Kukeiha Club’s Furukawa (“Aki”) Motoaki, and the difficulties of independent game development.
Tech-Gaming: While anthropomorphic characters are quite common in games, not many have a backstory as rich as Hugh? Can you tell us a bit about how he made his way into Horgihugh?
Sasaki Hide: It all started with this simple idea I had, which was to build a game around a pet dog as the protagonist. The character of Hugh was created based on my dear dog and family member, Huga. Huga actually used to live with another family in the Iidate village of Fukushima. However, after the Fukushima reactor incident in 2011, the village was officially classified as a “difficult-to-return zone” because of the radioactive pollution caused by the meltdown. The family Huga belonged to at the time was forced to move into temporary housing outside of Iidate following the events, however the housing unit didn’t allow for pets, and thus they were unable to take Huga with them. This ultimately led to his living in a shelter for a period of time. However, we eventually adopted him, initially just as a temporary thing, but then permanently, and he’s been with us ever since. This relationship has been so special to us that we feel like Huga becoming a member of our household gave us a new perspective on life, which inadvertently helped strengthen our family unit as a whole.
What makes this entire story all the more poignant is a boy named Kouga. Kouga is one of the family members who used to live with Huga. Kouga, who was 8 when Horgihugh’s development first began, was deeply interested in retro games at the time (thanks to the influence of his father, who was big into retro gaming). After I told him that I was going to build a game with Huga as the hero, he would ask me about the game’s progress every time I saw him. Knowing that there was someone who was looking forward to the game so much made the development process really special.
What was also interesting about Horgihugh’s development was my incorporation of the various themes that I had picked up on from people after the Fukushima accident. In the wake of that whole situation, it had become clear that there was no one, single way that people interpreted the reasons for and aftermath of the meltdown, nor was there a single view on how people should support the clean-up efforts that came after. I think that everyone was trying to do their best at the end of the day, but it was interesting to see so many different perspectives and interpretations of one single event. There were some who cared deeply about those affected, then there were some who only thought about the effects on the environment and the physical space surrounding the reactor-area, and then there were people who were completely indifferent to the whole thing. I couldn’t help but relate many of those feelings to my own life both as it pertained and did not pertain to that specific incident in 2011.
T-G: Hugh has a number of other friends such as Figaro the cat and Dr. Howard, a bulldog who is also a pacifistic scientist. How did you go about creating these personalities?
SH: All of these characters are based on existing animals. The name “Hugh” came from our dog Huga, as I mentioned, but also my favorite actor Hugh Jackman. I gave Hugh a calm and peaceful personality, just like the way Huga has lived his life: strong, kind, and peaceful even in times of great adversity. Of all the things I learned from my series of interactions with Huga’s original family, the one that sticks out to me the most is that Huga was raised as a happy dog since he was very little and was cherished dearly by his family members. The separation he must’ve experienced after the disaster must have brought him an immeasurable amount of sorrow and confusion. However, he was fortunate enough to have had a loving environment at the animal shelter he was taken to and was able to adapt to his new life quite smoothly. Despite being separated from his parents and siblings, the game character Hugh is always peaceful and upbeat, constantly reminding himself of something his father always told him: “If you smile, happiness will come and find you.” (This text is not actually included in the game proper.)
The character of Figaro is based on a cat I used to have. Its name was also “Figaro,” so I thought it only fitting that I carry that over to the game. Figaro, within Horgihugh, is described as a strong-willed character but also one that experiences loneliness from time to time. Figaro can’t resist caring about Hugh, because Hugh is his friend, and it’s that friendship that acts as the convincing factor in getting the two to first fly together (long before the events of the game). It’s not mentioned in the game anywhere, but Figaro was raised in an orphanage, so he’s never actually met his parents, but that plays into his specific loneliness and why he cherishes his friendship with Hugh so much.
There’s another character in the game, Angela. She too is based on a real cat of the same name. The “real-life” Angela is a cat that lives with my wife’s parents’. She’s the same age as Huga, and as a matter of fact, they lived together briefly after the disaster forced Huga to relocate. Thus, they’ve essentially been friends since their childhoods, just like it’s described in the game. Angela and Huga get along quite well but never have romantic feelings for each other, both in the game and real life (laughs).
The last character of the four main heroes is Dr. Howard. Howard’s the only character that came from outside our family of pets, though he also existed in real life. This is unofficial, but I created the character based around an English Bulldog named Howard.
He was introduced on a Japanese TV show one day, and you wouldn’t believe how popular he became after that. It’s not surprising, though; he has a charm about him that appeals to pretty much anyone who lays eyes on him, and it was that image that helped create Dr. Howard’s character. As you mentioned, he is indeed a pacifist scientist, but what’s funny is that the war with the Gozerean (the alien invaders in the game) is actually caused by his own research. So, there’s irony in there that effectively breaks down to: ‘sometimes bad stuff come from seemingly harmless situations or something that began with the best of intentions’. Fortunately though in life, you can recover from the mistakes you’ve made (wittingly or unwittingly) if you try hard enough. (Of course, there are plenty of exceptions and situations out there where that thinking may/will not apply.) I really worked hard to pass that message along to players, so hopefully people pick up on it.
T-G: Can you explain the meaning of the game’s title?
SH: It’s pretty simple, really. If you mix a corgi with a husky, and combine that with my dog’s name “Huga,” you get “Horgihugh”. As you can probably tell, I wanted to put a spotlight on Huga as much as I possibly could, hence why I even named the game after him.
T-G: Are there any underlying themes in the game?
SH: There are many, but the main one is: to live together in this world even if we see things differently. To put it another way, I guess you could say the underlying theme is “the coexistence of people who don’t understand one another.” There are many different races, nations, religions, and cultures around the world. Humans have repeatedly and continuously waged wars throughout history as a result of their inability to accept each other’s values. Unfortunately, this tragedy is still prevalent today. But this extends out to things beyond just war. For instance: in countries that aren’t affected by war, it’s still difficult for people to understand and acknowledge one another’s values. To me, each living person holds unique life and value. And, every single one of us is a living spirit, living on this beautiful planet. It’s okay to not understand each other or even to not get along with each other. You can distance yourself from someone if you don’t want to be with that person. But, perhaps the world would be a slightly better place if we could just accept each other’s values. This is the message I wanted to convey through Horgihugh.
T-G: I firmly believe that respectable STGs (shooting games or shoot ‘em ups) are built around a clever mechanic or at least a clever philosophy when it comes to design. What does Horgihugh bring to the genre?
SH: The blue gauge allows players to perform a loop-the-loop maneuver, which can be used in an offensive or defensive manner. That is to say, doing a loop-the-loop can get players out of a tight situation, granting them the ability to dodge incoming bullets for a moment. However, that same somersault maneuver can also be used offensively to take down enemies. So, I worked hard at giving players options. In fact, options permeate many aspects of the game, even in defeat.
What I mean by that is, even upon defeat players have the option to continue their progress (and lose points) or choose a “Game Over” to stock all the crystal fragments (points) they obtained on that particular run. Those crystal fragments can then, in turn, be used to buy things on the title screen from Angela’s Shop. This same type of choice-driven approach is even reflected in the levels themselves. I included the shop-oriented power-up system—Dr. Howard’s lab that presents itself to the player intermittently throughout each level—because I wanted to put emphasis on the unique interpretation of the world (as well as give players the option to power up their aircrafts). To that end, I felt like it would be unnatural to retrieve power-up capsules from exploding enemies. That wouldn’t make much sense in Horgihugh’s universe. So instead, I created an “emblem” system wherein Dr. Howard throws out these emblems mid-stage as a sort of storyline reminder to Hugh on how to operate his plane effectively.
Furthermore, players have the option to pilot both Hugh and Figaro simultaneously under certain conditions, which is something unique Horgihugh brings to the genre. Storyline-wise, Figaro links up with Hugh and joins the fight anytime he sees Hugh knocking off the proverbial rust (remember, at the beginning of the game, the opening text states that Hugh has retired from flying and thus hasn’t operated a plane in a while). Gameplay-wise, Figaro shows up once the player has acquired enough power-ups. Some people have said that I could’ve included Figaro as a controllable character for a second player and thus be able to say that the game offers 2-player co-op. But I opted not to do this because it didn’t make sense in the context of the game world and its themes.
Something else that’s worth mentioning is the stages. While I wanted the stage design to be sophisticated, I also wanted them to be simple and even a bit plain at times. I strived for this balance as a way to harken back to the late 80s and early 90s of arcade and 16-bit gaming. Hence, it was important to me to ensure that Horgihugh felt both modern and retro at the same time. I guess you could say I was going for a “modern retro” experience, if that’s even a term.
T-G: What is Horgihugh’s moment-to-moment gameplay like?
SH: Horgihugh is a game in which players proceed and make progress by learning geographical features, patterns, and systems of each of its stages, whilst avoiding attacks and blasting through enemies. I was very intentional with balancing these aspects, and as a result, some players will find the game extremely difficult while others will not. Fortunately, even if you find the game challenging, everyone should eventually be able to finish it with practice and perhaps a little help from Angela’s Shop (which allows players to purchase items with points they’ve accumulated that make the game easier). A little hint for those who find the game difficult: it may be helpful to remain in the top part of the screen for most stages. And for those who have played my previous games, there are some fun little Easter eggs hidden throughout Horgihugh that act as callbacks to those past works.
T-G What kind of weapons and power-ups can players expect?
SH: There are several. There’s the Photon Laser, which is standard through-laser. Then there’s the Ripple Laser, which is a Gradius, diffusion-type laser. And then there’s the Pulse Laser, which spreads outward in front of the player’s aircraft in a wave-like form. The game also has bombs and missiles to unlock and upgrade as well as protective barriers, power-ups for Figaro’s plane, and items that let players speed up their loop-the-loop gauge. Laser systems are equipped underneath Hugh’s and Figaro’s aircrafts, which was an intentional design decision I made, as I wanted to illustrate for players the context of Dr. Howard building these external weapon units that are meant to simulate the technology of the Gozerean.
T-G: Thinking about design decisions, what are some of your favorite STGs? And what is it that makes them distinctive?
SH: There’s a whole list. My favorites are probably Gradius, Gradius II Gofer no Yabou, and then Thunder Force III and IV. Horgihugh has obviously been influenced by all four of those titles, but it was Gradius II that was my biggest influence as it’s such a well-thought-out game. Like all of the titles I just listed, there are all sorts of secrets and strategies to discover in Horgihugh.
T-G: Horgihugh’s soundtrack was composed by Furukawa (“Aki”) Motoaki, who’s worked on titles such as Sunset Riders, Super C, and Gradius 2. Can you explain how Furukawa got involved with the project?
SH: This relates to the response I gave in the first question. I was deeply motivated to create something worthwhile when I found out that there was someone who was so eagerly awaiting the game’s completion. That being said, there were a few different facts that pushed the idea through to have Mr. Furukawa compose Horgihugh’s soundtrack. First and foremost, I love Gradius 2 for the MSX and Firebird for the MSX2. As a result of that love, I reached out to Mr. Furukawa on Twitter in early 2017 about the project. But I really set my heart on the idea of him composing the game’s OST when I saw a video of him and his band performing a song called “Hope” at a Great East Japan Earthquake charity concert.
Mr. Furukawa himself was severely affected by the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake of 1995. When I saw him play the song passionately for the victims of the 311 disaster, I immediately thought about Huga and how hard it must’ve been on him (and his original family) when he was given to the shelter. Not only that though, the boy I referenced earlier, Kouga, had some knowledge of retro games when I first met him, particularly the Gradius series. So this all culminated in a type of intuition that hit me one day that said Horgihugh was going to be something very special, to me if no one else. After that, I built up the courage and reached out to Mr. Furukawa. Honestly, looking back on it all now, I truly believe that this project is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
T-G: Speaking of classic games, there’s a moment in Horgihugh where a wave of fire arcs across the screen, reminiscent of Konami’s Salamander (aka Life Force). Does your game pay homage to any other titles?
SH: There are so many of them and the list goes on and on, but the games that I especially admire are the ones below. The key items from these games appear in Horgihugh, so I want players to try and look for them: Gradius, Gradius 2, Salamander, Gradius II Gofer no Yabou, Sky Kid, Ordyne, Darius, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, and the Thunder Force series.
T-G: One of the popular trends with STGs is a shift toward relentless difficulty, as evidenced by the popularity of danmaku. But Horgihugh takes a different approach and embraces accessibility. What was the reason for this decision?
SH: I’m actually not so good at danmaku STG. That might be one of the major reasons why I took a different approach with Horgihugh. Cute characters and somewhat charming enemies contrast with the story that revolves around heavy, almost existential themes and topics. I thought that it was essential that Horgihugh have some accessibility to it though, so that the even players who aren’t super good at these types of games can still enjoy the experience. Thus, if you’re a newcomer to the genre, Horgihugh may feel pretty challenging, but don’t give up! In time, you’ll be able to beat the game! I really believe that anyone can enjoy Horgihugh.
T-G: Many doujin circles and independent programmers express the intricacy of working with a smaller budget. Can you describe the developmental process?
SH: That is exactly the challenge that our company is facing. But, at the same time, if we had a ton of money and resources, our games probably wouldn’t feel as retro and charming as they do. Sure, it would be nice to have a budget that would be good enough to cover all the expenses for us to be able to focus on game development for about a year or two, but we manage to keep the company going with the resources we generate from our other businesses.
That being said, Horgihugh is the first game of ours that’s had any sort of publicity, and we are grateful to LionWing Publishing for making that happen. So I’d like to thank Mr. Bradly Halestorm personally for all of his efforts.
Tech-Gaming wished to thank Sasaki-san, Mr. Bradly Halestorm, and the LionWing Publishing Team.