Slave Zero X Interview

Slave Zero X first caught our eye last year, with a trailer that practically screamed cool 90s anime sh*t. Fortunately, the game was later confirmed for a PS5 and PS4 release (it's coming on the 21st February), and so we simply had to pick the brains of the people behind the project.

We asked both publisher Ziggurat Interactive and developer Poppy Works about the game itself, its development, and its inspirations.

Push Square: To start with, can you give us a brief overview of what kind of game Slave Zero X is?

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Cole Law, Marketing Coordinator at Ziggurat Interactive: Slave Zero X is a fast-paced 2.5D character action brawler in the futuristic dystopian world of Slave Zero (1999).

Wolfgang Wozniak, Co-founder at Poppy Works: Hi~! I’m Wolfgang Wozniak, co-founder and one of the producers on Slave Zero X. Slave Zero X is what we’d call a “high-action” style brawler. We took a lot of inspiration from world-class 3D action games and fighting games to put our spin on things.

Slave Zero X is set in the same world as 1999's Slave Zero — an action game that's gone on to be remembered as something of a cult classic. Why did you decide to revive that property all these years later?

CL: This revival happened unconventionally. We wanted to work with Poppy Works, and we knew they had a prototype of the gameplay you see in Slave Zero X. While talking about the games in our archives and exploring the history, Poppy Works became enamored with the history of the original Slave Zero and what the original dev team initially wanted for that release. These discoveries were really a catalyst for the creative teams mechanically, visually, and narratively. And it really felt like two halves of a whole finding each other... as cheesy as that sounds. It really just felt right.

WW: That’s exactly right! We were approached to do some work with Ziggurat’s catalog of classic games, and one thing led to another, and here we are!

Slave Zero X Interview

The original Slave Zero is obviously a very different kind of game to Slave Zero X, featuring fully 3D environments and combat that revolves around ranged weapons. Why did you decide to do something so different in terms of core gameplay?

CL: While the team at Poppy Works was very much inspired by the original concept art of the original Slave Zero, it also felt like the original Slave Zero — being the now cult classic it has become — had such a wealth of potential story and world to be discovered. While giant mecha are awesome, I think the pivot in gameplay allows for a different perspective of the Mega City and more stories to be told — particularly more human stories — and more sinister ones at that. And that’s not to say the world of Slave Zero can’t ever be again... anything is possible, but we wanted to build a new foundation for us to hopefully continue to explore the world of Slave Zero in the future.

WW: The developer of Devil Engine had been working on this kind of samurai prototype, very much hacked together, and once Ziggurat shared what IP they own, we found Slave Zero to be a good fit thematically. On top of this, there was already a fairly rich world setting there that we could easily build upon and make something fun and interesting.

We're sure this is a common question, but is there any need to have played or have knowledge of the original Slave Zero in order to fully enjoy Slave Zero X?

CL: Not at all. You absolutely can, though! I personally enjoy playing games in their release order. But it is by no means necessary; you may notice a few subtle things and characters here and there, but the story will not be lost on you. (But why not play Slave Zero, too, ha!)

WW: Exactly! We wanted to make sure that prior knowledge of a game (now series) that first released 23 years ago wasn’t required.

Slave Zero X Interview

We're getting big 90s anime vibes from Slave Zero X's art style. What were the main inspirations behind the game's look?

CL: The main inspiration was the original Slave Zero itself, and the team dove in to figure out what the original development team was aiming for. It borrows a lot of ideas from Evangelion, Guyver, and even from some Western works like Blade Runner and the artwork of H.R. Giger. A big artistic influence for both titles was Japanese designer and model maker Yasushi Nirasawa, who is famous for organic creatures and large shoulder pauldrons. The goal of the X team was to use these influences without the filters that the original development team had to go through.

WW: We had a lot of artists on this game that contributed to the world and character designs. Our art director’s vision for the characters helped inform the additions we wanted to make to the Slave Zero world and setting.

Francine Bridge, Art Director on Slave Zero X: Slave Zero (1999) was inspired by the impact that a lot of the first big boom of Japanese media entering the American public consciousness created — as mentioned, more famous material like Otomo's Akira or Anno's Evangelion, but also through more niche influences like garage kits, such as Yasushi Nirasawa's Phancure. Slave Zero (1999) was very much a product of its time, a reflection of those influences through the filter of first exposure.

We wanted Slave Zero X to recapture what was special about that kind of cultural exchange, but with the added benefit of another 20 years of cultural osmosis and continued dialogue — we were heavily influenced by additional sources such as the Tokusatsu cinema of Keita Amemiya, the sculpture and design work of Takayuki Takeya, and yes, revisiting and going deeper into those original sources. I remember one very specific frame of reference was the Tekkaman special nine-minute short Twin Blood, which reimagined the principal designs as being organic in nature.

At its core, we wanted to recapture some of the intensity and lavish, maximalist craft of the industry boom in the 80s and 90s, the place where pulp and Grand Guignol violence met incredibly elaborate design. That feeling, that peerless "cool" that was born out of the visual language of cyberpunk leaders like Masamune Shirow or the craft of animators like Yoshiaki Kawajiri — an intense cocktail of blood, spectacle, pulsing flesh, gleaming metal, the place where these all intersect.

We wanted people playing Slave Zero X to feel like they were watching a spectacularly gory OVA. I could list names forever — but that "up too late watching this on Adult Swim'' atmosphere is key.

Slave Zero X Interview

Fast-paced, side-scrolling action games are typically associated with steep difficulty curves — how hard is Slave Zero X? Is there a lot to master in terms of combat?

CL: Slave Zero X can be difficult. I, myself, had a habit of button mashing, which can absolutely get you into trouble or potentially even stop you in your tracks. But since playing and taking advantage of the training room, I can be more calculated. I wouldn’t say there is too much to master with the combat, but the key is learning how to flow through your move set efficiently. When you hit a flow state in Slave Zero X, it feels soooooo good.

WW: (laughs) Yeah, we wanted to be different than the other games in the beat-em-up genre. Most of those, such as Streets of Rage or Fatal Fury, really focus on slower movement, spacing, and then mashing the hell out of arcade buttons.

One of our biggest pillars for this game is creating systems and options to allow players to approach a situation differently if their current strategy or playstyle isn’t working for them in a given situation. Player expression in this way is one of the fundamental benefits of drawing influence from character action games and fighting games.

What was it like to develop a game like Slave Zero X? Did the process surprise you in any way?

CL: Slave Zero X was the largest, most aggressive, and diverse scope variation from the original story and the first time we offered worldwide physical and digital pre-orders as a company. It was our chosen title to take this risk — and with our strong partnership with Poppy Works — we were surprised, not by the challenges, but by the outstanding results from our teamwork and resiliency to iterate and improve continuously. The final game is better than what we originally conceptualized — which was the best surprise you could ask for. Hopefully, the good surprises continue as players get their hands on Slave Zero X!

Slave Zero X Interview

Can you tell us anything about Ziggurat's overall approach to breathing new life into old games?

CL: At Ziggurat, we are home to all sorts of titles. Every month, we review our catalog and examine current interests, trends, and opportunities to revisit, remix, or create new stories based on these games. From there, we perform a full analysis of any product or release challenges (technical issues, license requirements, etc.) and evaluate the potential that would deliver joy and satisfaction to folks.

We workshop our games lists with partners (often the original creators) to see if we can distill the concept into a product roadmap that delivers value, interest, and joy, honors the games’ origins but bridges the modern playability, and ultimately is a title our gamers would make room on a shelf (or digital catalog). We feel that Slave Zero X is the epitome of our process — and can’t wait to deliver that feeling (and secure that spot) with fans!

I always mention Zombie Dinos from Planet Zeltoid or M.U.D.S. when I get the chance. They are all wildly different games but all within our available archive because they’re a part of gaming history and shouldn’t just be remembered but also played. Sure, Dinotopia has had its fair share of games made, but did you know Zombie Dinos From Planet Zeltoid also has dinosaur puppets? And a weird talking brain?!

So with that, our first goal is for games not to be lost to time, and if we can bring some quality-of-life improvements to titles, we always investigate that as well. With additions like World Championship Boxing Manager 2 and Slave Zero X, we are also building upon these older IPs and carving out a space for these franchises to exist and hopefully grow.

And finally, if you could describe Slave Zero X in just one word, what would it be?

CL: Savage.

Huge thanks to Cole Law, Wolfgang Wozniak, and Francine Bridge for taking the time to answer our questions. Special thanks to Jasmine James and the team at UberStrategist for making this interview possible.

Are you looking forward to Slave Zero X? Dare we ask if you played the original Slave Zero? Grab your cyberpunk katana and start cleaving in the comments section below.