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How Samurai Jack got an extra life with in-canon video game Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time
On May 20, 2017, the 16-year journey of Samurai Jack finally came to an end. Creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s beloved Cartoon Network series (that migrated to Adult Swim for its final season) found bittersweet closure for its hero, and that was it.
Tartakovsky even told SYFY WIRE after the long-awaited finale that he and his creative team were satisfied with how the story unfolded. There were callbacks, cameos galore, and new characters who struck a nerve. But most importantly, there was a definitive ending for Jack as he defeated Aku and returned to a normal life.
So then, how does the brand-new, canon video game, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time (out on Aug. 21 across all platforms), fit into the mythology? Is it a retcon? Is it a missing episode of the series? SYFY WIRE talked to Tartakovsky and his long-time collaborator, writer Darrick Bachman, to get some answers...
Let’s start with how the idea of a canon game was presented to you?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Adult Swim Games were leading the charge on it. And I said, "If you're just gonna crap it out, I don't want to be involved." I know it's a business and people have to do what they have to do. But they said, "No, no, we want to make it really great. We’ve got this great Japanese studio [SOLEIL] to do it."
I said, "Alright, we'll have Darrick write it and we'll make it like the adventures from a different perspective but adventures that Jack’s had.” And then it seemed to fit properly rather than the worst thing [which] was some kind of a quick grab for cash, which was kind of more of how the earlier [games] felt.
How did that roll over to you, Darrick?
Darrick Bachman: It took me by surprise because I didn't even know that they were doing a game! And then [Genndy] contacted me. We're very close, so we were always in contact with each other anyway. But one day, he called me out of the blue and asked me if I was available to work on the game because Adult Swim wanted to approach it as if it was a new episode of the series.
When we were working on the series back in like 2002, they did [games] but they weren't really based on anything. They were just fighter games. But this time, they wanted to actually have a real story. So, at that point, Genndy and I just started thinking about what could there be? The story was over for us, and we had come to a natural end.
Did Adult Swim Games provide any direction or parameters to work within?
Bachman: Yes, there were actually already parameters in place for the game. The studio in Japan had earmarked certain things that they had already started building, like elements of the series that they really wanted to put in [a game]. So, that affected what the story could be because there are suddenly all these elements from the first four seasons, and then there's stuff from the fifth season. And then it was, "How do you fit all that into there?" It was a little complex.
Where did you start to get a handle on it all?
Bachman: Genndy and I talked about it for a while. I just decided to rewatch a bunch of stuff. And as I rewatched the final episode, there was a small window in the episode and it's totally innocuous. It's just an edit where Jack is going through a time portal with Ashi on his way back to the past to destroy Aku. And we literally cut to Aku in the past, and there's like a 50-second zone where we don't see Jack reemerge through the portal. And so, I was like, “Well, what happened during that 50 seconds?” It suddenly became an unexplained space right there that has to do with time.
And I started to think: "What if Aku knew he was going to be destroyed, so, it's his last-ditch attempt? He trapped Jack and it’s knocking him down a 'well of time.'" And by doing that, we could explore all the different aspects of the series. And then Jack had to climb back out and get right back on his path. It became an adventure within an adventure.
That solved your retcon issue, and it also allowed you to explore more of what you created for Season 5.
Bachman: Yes, [we loved] the idea of Ashi being part of the mix as well, and trying to mirror her role throughout the fifth season — she was Jack’s hope. [Season 5] was like a restoration of his spirit, and it all came about through her.
And so, I wanted to see if I could use a similar theme with her in the game. And it's interesting too because it's almost like she's reality. [In the game], Jack’s disoriented and trapped in a space of time he doesn’t understand. And then she's almost like the lighthouse calling the ship to the shore.
How was it writing an episode of a series in a gaming format? How did you figure that out?
Bachman: Both of us are new to this medium, so we were like, “How do we approach it?” You have to write for each game level. And so, we both decided to approach it as an episode of the show.
Tartakovsky: And, obviously, I'm a fan of samurai, martial arts, and all that kind of stuff. So, to have an authentic game doing that, fighting more supernatural-type villains and obstacles was really what we set out to do, and what I thought would be the most fun to do for me.
And I'm not the biggest video game guy. I grew up in the '80s where it started from Atari with Pitfall being the greatest game ever created. [Laughs.] The new games are so far beyond what I've ever thought video games could ever be. So, I think generally to have a samurai sword and to fight based on proper coordination and choreography, that's what I thought would be amazing.
For 16 years, the characters have been solely controlled by the creatives. How was it making them playable to others?
Bachman: Oh, it's a little bit of an adjustment for us because we're so used to controlling everything. And with a game, you can only do that to a certain point because it becomes the person playing its experience. They're involved in telling the story. So, as a fan of the show as well, it's pretty incredible to be able to see things that have been in your head for like, God, it's been 19 years! And for Genndy, it was totally trippy to see backgrounds and scenarios and characters that you never expect to see in a 3D space.
All of the original voice cast is back except for Mako, who passed away before Season 5. Did they do this as a tag-along to Season 5 recordings, or was there a reunion?
Bachman: It was definitely more of a reunion because the series completed in 2017. Everybody came back for it, and even people who didn't even remember what their characters were came back because [the game] has all these classic characters and villains. Certain actors we’d bring in, they couldn’t even recall who the character was. And as you play it [back] to them, it would all come flooding back. It was incredible to watch.
What was the best part of watching the recording sessions?
Bachman: I never knew that you had to record these things called sides, which are all the actions and game efforts. So, it's all the grunts and hacks. There's pages and pages and pages, so all the actors have to just sit there and scream and wail. Phil [LaMarr] would have to read through five pages of grunts and screams and hacks and hits and punches. It's just funny to watch.
Was there anything you couldn’t fit into Season 5 that you added to the game?
Tartakovsky: No. When you do the TV show, it's like this is what it is. And I never wanted to look back and have a regret. So, we've always planned the TV shows [as] this is what we could do in this amount of time. But having said that, video games are a different experience. And so, you want it to create the best version of the Jack world in the video game experience.
Have you both treated this as a true coda to Samurai Jack now?
Bachman: It's definitely one last opportunity to play in the space, because we both feel very strongly that Jack’s story is complete. Especially to see through Season 5, which was such a long, long road. It was about a decade of trying to finish Jack’s story, and then when we finally do it, we got to do it completely on Genndy’s terms, which was great. It's so rare to be able to be trusted like that and to be able to do exactly what you wanted to do with it.
And there's always a tendency somewhere in your heart that you still want to keep going 'cause you love these characters. You don't want to say goodbye to them. Plus, it's such a great show, but you also don't want to undo all the work that you’ve done. And it ended the way that we’d hoped and we’re really proud of it. But I relished the chance of being able to have one last go-around with the character.
You have more episodes of Primal coming this year on Adult Swim, right?
Bachman: Yes, [we] worked on Primal together. It's such a different kind of series, and it's so challenging, especially because I'm a writer and here is a show that has no dialogue. It's all conveying emotion through a story, and you have to feel a connection with characters. It's the work I'm most proud of in my whole career, especially the second half of the season. It's super good. And, we're currently working on a couple other things right now.
With the whole world locked down, animation has really come to the forefront as a medium that doesn’t need live-action shoots and can just keep going. Have you felt that with your workload?
Tartakovsky: It's definitely been really busy and there has been multiple offers to do different things popping up because of this situation. But, Primal is going gangbusters. We've got new episodes coming up, so there's a really positive future for maybe doing more. It's exciting. And then the feature development world, it is what it is. It takes a while. It's a big commitment, but that's all going positively. I'm busier than I ever have been before. But it's all good and it's all original stuff. And so, it's all very exciting.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is available Aug. 21, 2020 on Steam, Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox.