03 April 2017

Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman | the inspiration of Devil May Cry?

♪ Once upon a time a blue eyed boy from the west
Learned one of life’s cruelest lessons
That evil was bigger than his gun
So he followed the footsteps of a mysterious master to the far east
Where he learned the secrets of the sword
And came back home with the heart of a gunman
And the soul of a samurai ♪
- intro themesong of Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman -

Fans, meet the source of all you love. Intentional or not Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman, a Playstation 1 exclusive, is one game that has inspired action-hack&slash games since it’s launch in 1999. Developed by UEP Systems (ウエップシステム), a company that mostly focused on action sports games like Cool Boarders 2, Rising Zan was a bit of a creative departure for the team.
Starting off with the above quoted song the game prepares the player for what is to come: a flawed but unique experience. This begins with the game’s name, which is miss-pronounced at the title screen. While being sung as Rising Zan, the Samurai Gun Man, rhyming ‘Zan’ and ‘Man’, the title announcer says Rising Zan, The Samurai Gunmen; ignoring the rhyme. After the game is booted a short introduction plays telling the story anew.

But Zan isn’t important because of its story, which mostly serves to get a bunch of ninjas and samurai to appear in a western town, but because of its gameplay. Protagonist Johnny, who will always want to be called Zan, wields a gun and a katana each with their own dedicated button. He can use both at the same time giving combat a good mixture of ranged attacks and close-combat options. Movement is done using the directional-pad, as the Playstation 1 lacked the analogue stick introduced by the Nintendo 64, making control a bit stiff in a 3d environment. Targeting is done using a lock-on which sadly only works if an enemy is on screen making targeting off-screen enemies painfully difficult.

He can perform a normal attack combo, a dive kick, a combo with his gun, a parry and four special moves that require energy from a spirit bar to perform while also making him invincible throughout the animation: a forward lounge, a spin-kick, a 360 degree spin and two side swipes. If the player performs good enough he can activate Hustle Time in which Johnny- sorry, Zan’s sword increases in length, gains a speed boost and has infinite spirit to spend. At the end of a mission a scoreboard shows up and players are ranked on their time, how much they blocked, how stylish they were and how much health they had remaining; the highest ranking being titled Super Ultra Sexy Hero. Nice.
Because special moves give invincibility-frames and the scoring system penalizes blocking harshly, players will quickly focus on using their special moves constantly during enemy attacks to stay safe and deal damage. Paired with the fact that Zan’s spirit constantly regenerates this slowly turns the game into a game of memorization and on-point punishing. One has to make sure he has enough spirit to do the moves required at certain times, giving the game a 覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe) feeling; meaning “remember the game”. This process is further emphasized in the boss-fights who all have hard hitting attacks, which require you to time your own moves carefully and keep your spirit in check. It strives for you to be efficient.

While satisfying, once the patterns are figured out a player can steamroll through the game on every setting without getting hit. This isn’t helped by the enemies only having one or two moves each and rarely attacking. The levels you fight in are a mixture of western and Japanese architecture. You’ll fight through a western town, goldmines and eventually a futuristic pagoda sporting giant cannons. They definitely steal the spotlight and keep the game interesting throughout, urging players to continue in their journey. But it would be unfair to compare this game to ones of a current era. Action titles in the 3d space were rare at the time, especially ones done right. The most famous example of competition that Rising Zan had in its combat at the time was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. After its release in 1998 the combat in 3d-games took a step forward with the introduction of Z-targeting; allowing players to focus on one target with one press of a button. Rising Zan, as mentioned before, lacks a working lock-on feature, while also having to work with a d-pad setup instead of the analogue stick on offer with Zelda; even compared to other games of its time Rising Zan could still be called clunky.

Top: Rising Zan | Bottom: Devil May Cry 4
Inspiration or rip-off? The attack patterns of these bosses are identical, even with nearly 10 years of development time between them.
But while clunky, it should still be played by every enthusiast of the action-hack&slash genre at least once. When playing the game there’s a weird sense of discovery, like you’ve stumbled upon a original design-document of the first Devil May Cry and all action games to come afterwards. It included combat that allowed players to mix both ranged and melee combat, featured combo-attacks, had an ability that could easily be confused with Devil Trigger and even has some boss-designs and animations which would later see reuse in other games in the genre. Certain moves, like Charge, would later (though unconfirmed) form the inspiration for the iconic Stinger move of Devil May Cry. While the western setting and its enemy designs, while already referencing the manga Fist of the North Star (北斗の拳 ), could easily have influenced the Playstation 2 cult classic God Hand. The visuals seen above and below are also some examples, but like all others must be taken with a grain of salt. However this isn’t the first time UEP Systems might have been at the forefront of the genre, with their action sports games possibly having laid the groundwork for the later mainstream success of the genre with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which also took debatable inspiration from their UEP’s titles.
All of this is conjecture though but it’s an interesting game to play just because it’s unknown and to see how far the influences might go. The designers of Rising Zan never went to big studios afterwards or worked on other games in the genre. When asked in interviews about inspirations while developing games designers often name movies or pieces of literature, and rarely mention an arcade title they grew up playing; Rising Zan never gets a mention. Are these people too proud to admit they took inspiration from an unknown title? Did they play it once and have it unknowingly influence their design process of games like Devil May Cry? Did Capcom throw a copy of this game on the desk of the producer behind Devil May Cry with a note reading "the current game won't work, turn it into this"? Or is it all one big coincidence? We’ll probably never know.


Top: Rising Zan | Bottom: Devil May Cry 3
Both a katana wielding alternate character to a sword&gun combo main-character, performing the same taunt after fights. Coincidence? We'll never know.

With its merits as an inspiration unconfirmed, paired with the closure of the UEP systems in 2001 after poor sales, Rising Zan: the Samurai Gunman was quickly forgotten. And for good reason; it is not a sophisticated game. Its systems work but are wonky and unreliable forcing the player to abuse certain abilities to survive while offering little content in return. While it does have decent replay value with some unlockables, like a secondary character, and it is fun to master it remains hard to recommend in this day and age. But as a piece of action-hack&slash history it is well worth considering, especially since it’s release on the Japanese PSN-store on the Playstation 3. If you ever wanted to know where the Stinger came from, you might find it here!



opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

Personally I really like the game as a piece of history; playing it really feels like discovering the genre’s long forgotten origin. But this also gives me annoyance. Designers have never commented on the game and when asked, ignore it. I fear that they want to keep the honor of pioneering the genre to themselves while others were possibly actually at the forefront.
To try and get some answers I tried reaching out to both Shinji Mikami, whose credits included Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish, and Hideki Kamiya, most famous for Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101. While perhaps too direct in my questioning, asking Kamiya got me blocked from his twitter account in seconds. Looking a bit further back one can find a string of blocked users who asked the same question: did Rising Zan inspire you when making Devil May Cry? Denial, or tired of hearing the same question over and over again? Mikami sadly didn’t respond.
As a game itself though, it’s undeniably unpolished. If played back to back with the original Devil May Cry the difference is extremely noticeable when it comes down to how responsive the controls are or how well the game runs. That being said, I am still grateful to have a copy of the game on my shelve; a piece of gaming history.


postscript notes
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  • I tried to reach out to numerous people in the development team for their take on Rising Zan and its probable inspiration for later titles in the genre, but found none. I did spark a conversation with one person who shared the lead designers name, sorry about that!
  • After having tried the game on an emulator, I decided to buy the game to give it a proper review. Making it a Stinger Magazine first in which I buy a game to review it.
  • The game is available for download on the Japanese PS3 PSN-store, but nowhere else sadly. Used copies of the game can go to up to 20 dollars at the time of writing.
  • Kamiya is known for being tough and troll’ish online and kind in real life, like most people you meet on the web. Here’s hoping one day someone asks him in the face: have you played Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman?
  • The game features some stellar voice-acting, probably inspired by Metal Gear Solid which really pushed the boundaries of video-game presentation after its release in 1998.
  • Shout-outs to MikeKob for his extensive research on the game, from which I took some images and notes. If I ever get payed for doing this I owe you a beer.

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