Michael Levine of Happy Giant took on an unenviable task: Bringing Stan Sakai’s beloved cult samuari comic Usagi Yojimbo back to gaming after a quarter-century hiatus. We spoke with Levine about adapting a classic comic to a new medium.
Gamma Squad: How did the game start? Did you approach Stan or vice versa?
Michael Levine: Well here is how it went down. I knew Usagi, but I didn’t read it avidly growing up. Then my buddy gave me the first 5 books, and I flipped out. I loved it on so many levels, and I ended up reading the whole series non-stop pretty much. So I contacted Dark Horse, who put me in touch with Stan, and the rest as they say … is bunny history!
Gamma Squad: What games did you draw on for ideas?
Levine: TMNT was a big inspiration and fit so well with Usagi for obvious reasons. It’s a classic. On the mobile side, games like OMGPirates! were an inspiration. I am also a huge Castle Crashers fan and while this game is much simpler game than CC, it definitely drew a lot of direct influence from it.
Gamma Squad: A fighting game is a bit different from your other work. What challenges did it present?
Levine: Well, not as different as you may think. I’ve had a few companies over the years. Pileated Pictures is my work for hire company and we have done lots of games over the years. We actually did a Transformers online side scrolling fighting game a few years ago and while it was done for the web and Flash, it definitely laid the foundations for Usagi, which we made in Unity. I have also made full on 3D action games such as Insecticide, and we love action games. My team has developed a lot of flexibility over the years, as we have adapted to different projects, so we felt like we could do this.
Gamma Squad: The art style is very faithful to Sakai’s work. Was it easy or hard to bring the characters into mobile, and why?
Levine: Was it hard? Yes and no. The artwork itself, I agree with you, we nailed, thanks to our great artists Brad Fitzpatrick and Jenny Blicharz faithful devotion to the art of the comic. Now animating it, was a bit trickier. Since mobile has constraints, we developed a system where we animated the 2D art in Maya, then brought it into Unity. This saved a ton of file space and allows the game to have the amount of animation it has, which is a lot.
Gamma Squad: What challenges does mobile present when dealing with more traditional game genres, like fighting games?
Levine: Aside from the above, there is no doubt its the controls. We made some decisions early on about how we wanted this game to work. Now that its out there, we are listening to some of the feedback and plan to update a few key things in the controls to make it that much better. You just can’t much the responsiveness of a game controller but we still feel these types of games can work on mobile and tablets as well.
I would just add how great Dark Horse Comics was to work with, as well as Stan Sakai. He is every bit as nice and gracious as his reputation and it was an amazing experience to work with him and be with him at Comic Con and see his relationship with his fans.
More than anything, we made this game for the fans, and to re-introduce Usagi to a new generation of fans. He has been around so long I think people take it for granted, and we hope this game helps just a little bit in reminding people about how great Usagi is!
Usagi Yojimbo: The Way Of The Ronin is out now for iOS.