Interview: Skulls of the Shogun designer Jake Kazdal

Posted on Apr 15 2012 - 2:09pm by Tim Torres

skulls3 Interview: Skulls of the Shogun designer Jake Kazdal

I haven’t played a decent strategy RPG in eons. Recently I’ve gone back to Final Fantasy Tactics and its Game Boy Advance spin-off to get my fix, but man, where did that genre go? It used to be so prevalent in the 16 and 32-bit eras. It’s kept on life support these days on handhelds, but it seems no one out there cares about it that much anymore.

Oh, wait! Jake Kazdal and his team at Haunted Castle Studios still care about strategy RPGs! They care about them so much they’re going to evolve the genre with their new game, Skulls of the Shogun, a hybrid fighting-strategy-chess strategy game. I’ve wanted to get my hands on it for awhile but it keeps eluding my grasp. It looks like the shot in the arm the wayward genre needs, doesn’t it? So I decided to exchange a brief e-mail Q&A session with the game’s design lead and art director, Jake Kazdal, until I get the chance to bust some shogun skulls of my own.

Read on to find out more about Jake Kazdal, his team, and how Skulls of the Shogun uses the past to step forward into the future.

Can you give us some background on you and your team?

Most of us have been in the AAA industry for years, the 3 original core members, myself, Borut Pfeifer, and Ben Vance all met while working at EA in Los Angeles on Steven Spielberg’s cancelled “LMNO” project. I founded the studio, and have been making console games since 1996. I worked in Japan at Sega for 4.5 years and really fell in love with Japanese culture and pop design, especially stuff from the ’60′s, which is where Skulls of the Shogun gets a lot of its aesthetic inspiration.

How long have you guys been in development? I remember hearing about Skulls years ago. Has it been a rough road?

We’ll hit 3 years this June! The team has steadily grown, we’re at 5 full-timers now, with Paul Schreiber running operations and Colin Williamson doing menu and video design, along with a crew of contributors. It’s been rough but also amazingly rewarding and exciting, we all love this sort of development very much and have no intentions of going back!

From what I’ve gathered, Skulls of the Shogun combines elements of Advance Wars, 60s anime and D&D… am I missing any influences? How does Skulls improve upon or expand on these influences?

Heh, those are pretty accurate observations! We wanted to make a strategy game that felt almost like an action game, a very seamless interface and fast paced, although it is turn based strategy. It’s much more of a tactical brawler in slow motion almost. Advance Wars games are some of my very favorite, and I just wanted to play in that space and make it even faster and more arcade like!

What is it about 16-bit games that made them so special? What titles stood out to you? What’s the difference between games then and games now?

Man, I just am infatuated with the Super Famicom. I worked at Nintendo’s U.S. office as a Game Counselor during the 8-bit days, and the rumors of the new machine coming were too big for my little head to contain. It was the ultimate games machine, so many colors, just the right amount of buttons, scaling sprites, action and adventure games of every flavor, I could go on. Still nothing like those games, these days I spend a lot more time playing retro 16-bit games than most other games, there was just such a purity there, an immediacy of control, a perfect one-to-one connection that I rarely find in games these days. During the SNES years I worked as a Game Counselor at Enix America, so I was absolutely steeped in classics like Actraiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia (my first game credits) 7th Saga, etc. Loved ZeldaYoshi’s Island is still arguably the best platformer ever created. Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting was the ultimate fighting game of all time for me.

skulls2 Interview: Skulls of the Shogun designer Jake Kazdal

Oh man, if there’s a noble pig sacrifice in Skulls of the Shogun…

So how does a round of Skulls of the Shogun play out? What kind of units and abilities are there? Are these Experience, Magic Points, Job Points, and all that?

You use your infantry to slow the enemy and protect your Shogun, while Cavalry are great scouts that can capture resources and do strike attacks. Archers snipe, while the Monks summon the gods to heal, protect, destroy and more! Its very much a brawler in spirit, there isn’t a leveling up system, its more about how your skills progress as you learn the intricacies of the varied units.

I understand you have a soft spot for Japanese RPGs… Will Skulls have a story mode? If so, who’s penning the dialogue?

Absolutely, it’s in my DNA. Don’t play the new ones these days but love the classics. We have a great, 10 hour or so dedicated campaign that has had an enormous amount of love and polish put into it! Ben Vance, one of the 3 core team members was the lead writer, and my good friend Mark MacDonald at 8-4 Localization services out of Tokyo also helped with writing. It’s very funny, and very well done. It’s actually something everyone absolutely loves, lots of goofy jokes, players tend to laugh a lot.

What about the soundtrack? What kind of style are you going for?

My friend DJ Makyo out of Tokyo did a stunning soundtrack that is sort of dub influenced, but featuring classical Japanese instruments. It is a fantastic album that again, everyone who playes it loves, it fits the game perfectly.

Skulls of the Shogun is a reaction to strategy games not moving forward beyond their 16-bit roots… why do you think these games never evolved?

I don’t know, I think they did to some extent, I thought Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles was pretty amazing. I think its viewed as more of a niche, and these days big hit games are first person shooters and other genre’s that try to appeal to a wider audience maybe? I just really miss console 2D games and wanted to make something that hearkened back to the Shining Force era in a sense. I think those games have lost most of their character, and aren’t the fun pure experiences they used to be.

What do you make of the state of Japanese game development today? Is it as bleak as Keiji Inafune and Phil Fish say it is?

It is, but there are absolute gems there that still pop up. Sakura Samurai on 3DS is something I have been enjoying a lot lately, as well as a lot of other Nintendo 3DS stuff. They still seem to get it. But yes it’s weird, to have spent so much time with Japanese games growing up, lately there are many more innovations and examples of forward thinking game design coming out of the West. Not to say there isn’t hope! In fact we plan to move the Studio back to Japan later this year and eventually have an international team that can focus on the strengths and knowledge of both markets.

skulls Interview: Skulls of the Shogun designer Jake Kazdal

60s anime, fighting games and Shining Force collide.

When can we expect the launch? On what platforms?

Skulls of the Shogun will launch with the Windows 8 launch, and will be a first party title. It will also ship at the same time for XBLA, and Windows Phones!

Y’know, a Vita version would be pretty cool…

I know. I am a big Vita supporter, I really hope they make it an amazingly good machine for small developers like us to be able to focus on great controlling old skool 2D gameplay, in fact Mutant Blobs Attack is one of my favorite games of the year. Much more like that please!


Agreed. The more old school 2D gameplay, the better. To see Skulls of the Shogun (and Jake Kazdal) in action, and to hear more about the game, give the video below a look.

0 Interview: Skulls of the Shogun designer Jake Kazdal

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Editor-in-chief Tim Torres is a video game geek, a tech nut, a film nerd, and he occasionally picks up a book once in a while. He has written all manner of copy for PCMag, Computer Shopper, The Jersey Journal, Radio One, and Random House. As a video game critic and podcast host, he has written in-depth reviews, attended industry events, conducted interviews and led creative discussions on various topics related to games and the games industry. Before entering the tech world, he attended New York University and worked in education as an art instructor. In his spare time he acts, sketches, eats a lot of sushi and watches a lot of Netflix. He does not hate Final Fantasy VII.

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1 Comment so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Terry Torres April 25, 2012 at 1:09 PM - Reply

    Oh man, dudes worked with Quintet?? I am so optimistic about this.

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