By Jeremy Parish

Yoshiro Kimura of Onion Games could never be accused of rehashing the same boring ideas as his competitors. As the visionary behind such wildly diverse works as CHULIP (an RPG built around kissing), Dandy Dungeon (a dungeon RPG about and created by an unemployed middle-aged man), and Rule of Rose (a horror game set in a Lord of the Flies-like girls’ academy in post-Great War England), Kimura excels at exploring unexpected ideas and trading in unconventional themes. His games rarely look or play like one another, yet they all bear his indelible stamp.

That’s especially true of Black Bird, a Switch shooter from Onion Games. With Black Bird, Kimura has reached back nearly four decades into the past to combine concepts from across the full expanse of the 2D shooter genre. In some ways, Black Bird plays like Defender meets a modern day bullet-hell shooter, but the similarities to basically any other take on the genre essentially end there. Black Bird casts players as a sort of wrathful, avenging spirit who enters the world to punish its inhabitants for their selfishness: The Black Bird is summoned into the world when a sickly girl is left by others to die homeless and alone, and it proceeds to wreak havoc on the world.

This unusual theme is paired with a one-of-a-kind visual style, a world crammed with detail and animation, and bizarre bosses to battle with. Along the way, the Black Bird grows in strength while allowing players to seek higher scores by mastering the shooting mechanics. It’s a brief game, but it’s both challenging and loaded with surprising details, making it the kind of shooter that demands to be played again and again.

We spoke with Kimura to learn more about the origins and meaning of Black Bird, which is on sale via Limited Run Games through May 8 (Switch Collector’s Edition | Switch Standard Edition).

Limited Run Games: Between its muted color palette and its grim backstory, Black Bird has a melancholy air rarely seen in shooters. What was your inspiration for the story—your intention?

Yoshiro Kimura: It might be God, or perhaps Nature? 

In our reality, when disaster befalls the world, we can only really say that God is the reason for it. When a disaster occurs, usually some kind of cosmic entropy, or the law of conservation of mass, or whatever, is at play. It’s possible that there is something trying to maintain balance between sin and punishment, or good and evil. 

The game’s story tells us the reason Black Bird brings forth disaster is a result of his relationship with how humans live their lives. In the real world, a disaster has nothing to do with how everyone lives their lives, but simply attacks everyone equally and indiscriminately. In Black Bird, however, the disaster is caused by townspeople who see a young girl dying on the roadside, yet do nothing to help her. If something like this invisible force existed in our world, it would be quite terrifying. 

Actually, the dying young girl is seen by people of this world as a deadbeat, so they ignore her. What should we do? Are we living our lives that have us look the other way when encountering these deadbeats? It would be great if all people could always cooperate to help one another, rather than forming relationships only after disaster has struck.

LRG: In terms of its mechanics, Black Bird seems to draw a lot of inspiration from classic arcade games like Williams’s Defender and Sega’s Fantasy Zone. That’s very different from the RPG and simulation-style games you’re best known for creating. How did the concept of “god and nature” come together with this style of gameplay?

YK: There were three things that helped me come up with the idea for Black Bird. One would be meeting ZUN-san from the Touhou Project. The second would be my encounter with Mikado, the retro arcade center located in Takadanobaba, which was where I spent a lot of time playing shooters—I’m a fan of Salamander [Life Force] and Fantasy Zone.

However, the strongest influence would have to be the 3/11 disaster and the images of the tsunami that it caused. Japan is a country that frequently experiences geological events such as typhoons and earthquakes. Those disasters are always coming for us. We live in a dangerous country. I’ll never be able to forget the tragic scenery brought about by the disaster. It turns out that seeing shooting games allows me to realize a certain thing: That characters like Reimu Hakurei and Vic Viper appear if a certain kind of disaster attacks our world—a special kind of disaster that will, from out of nowhere, attack people enjoying ordinary lives. That’s the concept for Black Bird’s protagonist. For this kingdom, a black bird is considered to be a disaster.

LRG: Black Bird has a unique visual style, not only in terms of color palette but also in terms of environmental and character design. What kind of world is this game meant to represent?

YK: I wanted to depict a world that was optimistic and brimming with fear, similar to the real world. The disaster we know as “Black Bird” might be a terrifying thing, but I also wanted the soldiers of the kingdom to feel terrifying as well. When humans are afraid, what is it that they feel? I personally find playing God, biomimicry, and gigantic man-made artifacts to instill fear within me. There are various elements in the game that I’ve included because they scare me. The enhanced human soldiers, the fat creature that laughs while wreaking havoc, the giant imitation bird doll, the eye of Coelacanth, the emotionless Goddess… these are all metaphors for the things that I fear in the real human world. I’m sure there are others who feel the same way.

LRG: Shooters tend to be fairly short but built around replay, and Black Bird is no different. Besides its multiple endings, what other incentives exist to encourage players to return to the game once they complete it?

I like that shooters tend to be short games. To be honest, long games like RPGs are tough to play and develop. [laughs] That’s why I wanted to make a short game that was packed with a lot of content. If you play the game a number of times, you can discover various secrets:

  • Hidden characters and gimmicks
  • Watch Black Bird grow and evolve into its bomb form
  • The pleasure of massacring the kingdom’s inhabitants as they enjoy their lives
  • The enemies that appear in sync with the game’s music
  • Players combining various elements as they see fit as they formulate strategies
  • Etc., etc.

Please discover them for yourself!

LRG: How does Black Bird fit into the larger “Kimura universe”, as it were? How does it relate to your other works, in terms of themes and design?

Humans have both a light side and a dark side. That applies to me, too. To explain briefly: CHULIP, Dandy Dungeon and Little King’s Story represent the worlds of light which I’ve created. Meanwhile, Million Onion Hotel and Rule of Rose represent the Kimura dark side. I would say Black Bird is on the same side as Rule of Rose.

After becoming an adult, I felt that I should show my light side in order to find my place within society. Personality-wise, I tend to be introverted and subservient. The things that comprise the Kimura dark side come from my travels and childhood experiences. I feel that this is where the dark side comes from. Since I was a child, I encountered eccentric and dangerous adults, visited and explored a number of countries and interacted with their people. I particularly like street corners and back alleyways. I won’t forget the strange worlds I encountered there.

For example, if we’re to tie those back to this game, I’d like to talk about a small village [I visited] in Morocco, which doesn’t appear on maps. In that village, every building is made of brown bricks. The entire scenery is brown. When a red Coca Cola truck appeared there, I was so surprised to see that two different types of civilizations were crossing paths at this moment. It was scary, crazy, and beautiful. I can always visualize this experience in the palm of my hand. Every other game is like this, too. Implementing real-life experiences is always the most interesting way to do it. That’s what all my games have in common.

April 15, 2020