Interview: Sohei Niikawa, Writer and Producer of Disgaea

by Kim Morrissy & Callum May,

We may be a few years off from a Disgaea 6, but the first Disgaea game is making its way to Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 with all-new HD graphics in the form of Disgaea Complete. The original game released on the Playstation 2 in 2003, but has since received releases to Nintendo DS, Playstation Portable and Steam and has been referenced in both future releases and Nippon Ichi Software games and beyond (including a fun cameo in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series).

To reflect on the series’ history and ask about what's new to this edition of the much-ported classic, we spoke to Disgaea creator and Nippon Ichi Software president Sohei Niikawa at Tokyo Game Show this year.

How would you describe the appeal of Disgaea to a newcomer?

SOHEI NIIKAWA: The image of Disgaea can be summed up as Netherworlds, demons, and comedy. And the gameplay itself is anything goes, wild and crazy.

Do you think there's been much of a change from the early days to nowadays?

The overall concept of the game hasn't changed from 1 to 5, however the gameplay over the past 15 years has gotten crazier and crazier.

Prinny has become the mascot character of the series. What was the original concept behind its design?

I really wanted to create a representative mascot for the Disgaea series. So I told the character designer Takehito Harada to make something neat with that in mind. And for some reason it came out as a penguin.

Prinnies have been in all of Disgaea's numbered titles as well as in other games made by Nippon Ichi Software, so rather than being just the series mascot, they've become the mascot of the entire company.

Throughout the history of Disgaea, which contribution have you made that you're most proud of?

I've played two roles in this series: producer and writer. The producer is kind of a backseat role, so nobody from outside can really see the contributions, but my work as the scenario writer is more understandable, particularly with coming up with popular characters like Laharl and Flonne, and, of course, the Prinnies. But even though I'm writing these characters, it's Harada's artwork that brings them to life, so it's all a very collaborative process.

Do you think Disgaea would have been popular without Harada's designs?

No. It's because of Harada's designs that Disgaea is what it is.

So what do you think is the core appeal of those designs?

For starters, they're cute. Also, Harada is kind of a spontaneous person who can come up with ideas for designs right off the bat. Another thing to know about him is that he's a gamer. He loves games and has a very deep understanding of them. And because he's an employee of Nippon Ichi Software and understands the games so well, he's able to design characters that work really well in the games they appear in.

Another thing that's iconic about Disgaea is Tenpei Sato's music. What do you think is the appeal of the music?

One thing you should know about Sato is that we've been working with him since before Disgaea. There's this older game on the PlayStation 1 called Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and a game on the PlayStation 2 called La Pucelle: Tactics that we worked on together with him. So we have a long history together.

Personally, rather than associating Tenpei Sato with Disgaea music in particular, I think of him as the guy who creates all of Nippon Ichi Software's music. He's contributed greatly to the company overall over many series.

So there's Sato's music and then there's the Prinnies, who have become part of not just Disgaea's brand but also part of Nippon Ichi Software's brand overall. How do you think Disgaea has affected other Nippon Ichi games?

Many people who join our company, particularly on the programming side, joined because they were really big Disgaea fans. You could say that Disgaea is the soul of our company. And that soul is expressed in how we challenge ourselves to go a bit crazy and try something new that no other company would do, just as Disgaea does. We have a “consumer first” ideology; we want our audience to have a good time. By being fans of Disgaea, many people who join already possess that soul, and that soul has become the DNA of the company that passes on from generation to generation.

And so, when our people make games that aren't even part of the Disgaea series, the Disgaea spirit still exists in some way in those games too.

This time you're putting the first Disgaea game onto a Complete Version. What's the appeal of purchasing this game when it's been available on other platforms already?

As you've said, Disgaea 1 is on many different platforms already. But it has never come out on the newest platforms, like the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch. Disgaea 1 was made 15 years ago, but it's also the most popular Disgaea game. I want people to be able to play it nowadays as well. Even now, there will be people playing Disgaea for the first time, so I want the game to be available on a large number of platforms for them. I hope they'll be able to appreciate the older, more nostalgic style of gameplay as well as these characters that are still really, really popular to this day.

The DS version featured some extra recruitable characters. Are these characters playable in the Complete Version?

Any of the extra content from all of the later versions will be included in the Complete Version.

What's your favorite thing about the visual upgrade in the Complete Version?

The original Disgaea was drawn with pixel art, but this time they're in HD, just like Disgaea 5. I'm really looking forward to how the audience reacts to the new graphics.

What sort of feedback did you hear from fans that you wanted to address in Disgaea 1 Complete?

Honestly, because the game is so old, there's not a lot of feedback that can be addressed. It became more important for us to faithfully recreate the game and not go fixing what isn't broken. Most of the feedback will happen after the Complete Version comes out in Japan, and fans over there give lots of feedback.

So what about future installments?

Absolutely. Depending on the feedback, we would love to remake Disgaea 2 and the others. We could nurture the Disgaea remakes into something that fans both old and new can love.

What do you think fans who entered the series from Disgaea 5 would get from going back to the original?

The biggest thing is the story and characters. Those are completely different from Disgaea 5, so I think that people would be able to enjoy it as something new. On the other hand, going from the newest gameplay system to the oldest one, you'll probably feel that the first game has a “classic” feel to it. I hope those players will be able to appreciate roots of the series and how the gameplay has changed over 15 years. Because so much has been added to the gameplay systems over the years, you might find Disgaea 1 and 2 to be very simple. You might even feel that Disgaea 5 had too many systems packed into it.

Is that something you may want to address in Disgaea 6?

We might not make it so chock full of stuff, but it's in the nature of the series to innovate and try new things, so there will still be lots of gameplay options to enjoy.

Where do you think you see your company headed in the future?

Every part of Nippon Ichi Software around the world wants to keep making games like we always have for consumers. We also want to release all of those games on various platforms, using the American team to distribute those games all around the world. We want people to enjoy the worlds we've created and to touch their lives in some way.

Video games aren't necessities in life. They aren't like food or clothing or shelter that you need to have in order to exist. However, through games, people's hearts can connect and our lives can become richer in some way. That's the power of video games. Through video games, I want to bring peace to the world. Even though we have war and terrorism in the world, I believe a day will come when everyone will see the fun in video games. They won't time to do all of that war stuff - we can all just enjoy games together.

Our role is to make that day come one day quicker, by putting out the best games we can. We want more people to believe that video games can bring peace. We'll convert them one by one. That's why we'll continue to put out games.

Let's hope for world peace.

Thanks to NISA for the interview opportunity.

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