Artwork from unreleased Konami fighting game surfaces
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In the first volume of my book trilogy, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, I interviewed Konami developer Masaaki Kukino. Here is a previous interview excerpt with him. Though perhaps best known as the creator of the Silent Scope franchise, he also started work on an unfinished versus fighter while at Konami. He still kept all the artwork, though was unable to find them at the time of publishing.
Today though Mr Kukino has put the images online, and given me permission to post them elsewhere. Below I present the entire interview segment regarding this unusual fighting game, alongside all of the art he has so far put online.
Given the high quality of Konami's 16-bit era titles, it's fascinating to consider what could have been.
Interview with Masaaki Kukino
13 November 2013, Kyoto
I visited the Kansai region for three days, from 11 until 13 November. It was a wild ride. On the final day, just before my departure, I interviewed Mr Kukino at a coffee shop by the train station. I had actually interviewed him via email before, for an unpublished Haunted Castle interview. This would be a follow-up. Mr Kukino is a true arcade veteran, starting at Konami and then working at SNK, having produced a variety of arcade titles over the years, several of them arcade exclusives. He reveals a lot of things about the nature of arcade development, technological progress, and a few things no one knows about.
JS: Konami had a reputation for high technical quality, in the 1980s and 1990s.
MK: Yes. In the arcade game division we worked on both - hardware as well as software. Those two departments, hardware and software, competed and collaborated with each other, making each other even better, and it applies to other game development companies. So the situation at that time was somewhat different to what we have today.
In game program development, there really is no end to it. You can keep improving the program forever - literally speaking. It should be ourselves, knowing when to stop. But being in the development section we tended to pursue a better level for any program, so it was hard for us to stop ourselves. So we ended up working until late at night, and working throughout the night. That's something which was self-imposed by the employees, in a way.
JS: The first game you worked on at Konami, an edutainment title for MSX1, was unreleased. Next, your portfolio lists Full Throttle (1986). It too was unreleased, but had the US title Full Throttle, and Japanese title Super Bikers. It's unrelated to the same-named 1987 Taito game. With Full Throttle / Super Bikers, you were both planner and artist?
MK: That's my first game, but when I joined the arcade game division as a new hire, the project had already been started, and so my role was limited to an artist. Designing the player's mount on the motorbike, and the animation and the actions taken by the player. But the development of this title was stopped before release. It was not released. Typically when we design any title, there are artists and there are programmers, and there is a planner - known in English as a game designer - who plans out all of the design for the title. They have clear boundaries among their roles, but at Konami, when I worked in the arcade division, we only had artists and programmers, and then so-called directors. So between the parties, all the game designs were brainstormed and planned in detail. So I learned a lot from the experience. I think this was a good virtue of Konami's development environment.
JS: So your first two projects were unreleased?
JS: Were there many other unreleased games?
MK: There are so many, actually!
JS: How many were you involved in?
MK: I was so disappointed when I came to hear that my first ever title was not going to be released, because I worked on the game day and night, and throughout the night. So it was very disappointing. Having said that, let me explain how arcade titles are developed. We have repeated SATs - Site Acceptance Tests - or location tests, and when we cannot get the presumed results, for example there's a bad response from the players, or something technical, we keep amending the program. Then based on that we have to determine whether we should go on, or terminate the project. It's a hard decision to make. So when any title is not released, that is the responsibility of the development team. Nobody else's. I had that keen awareness too. It applies to any time period.
JS: Between 1986 and 2002 at Konami, could you give an estimate?
JS: More than 50? More than 100?
MK: Not that many... I don't think the number is in multiples of 10 or anything, because in the case of arcade titles, the development period tended to be much longer than that for consoles or home games. Typically in the case of console games the development period for the prototype was more like two months. As opposed to the development of arcade games, which was between six months and one year, because we had to make something that is acceptable on-site at game centres. So from there we keep amending what needs to be addressed and so on. One team had to work between six months and one year - given that fact, the number [of unreleased arcade games] cannot be that many.
So even when we did not get what we wanted, in terms of player responses and so on, sometimes we drastically had to change the development direction. So it could be acceptable for players. So it's not that we started to work on a project, and then aborted right away, and then repeated the process. On the other hand, there are so many projects that were aborted even before getting started. So it's not something we would let outsiders know about. We had in-house evaluations of a specific project, which provided only the bare bones of the new title. We might as well get that project examined internally, in the company. So many of them came and went. The number is much higher if I include those projects.
JS: Do you want to describe any? I like to read descriptions and play the game inside my mind.
MK: Ah, yes, yes! There were so many projects that had to be stopped. Or we had to shift our direction, to do something else. I have lots of experiences like that. Let me explain the most impressive or most memorable project that was terminated - for me personally. We were thinking about a fighting game, around 1992, and we had already formed a team to work on the project. Inside the team we were planning the game, and we were making progress. But that title was very innovative for the time. It had really breakthrough ideas in terms of art style, and also the [mechanical] game system, and we found the idea really interesting. So we wanted to do it. The reason why we could not proceed on that project was that it required really high manpower, and it was so time consuming. Also the capacity required for the hardware was too high. So those challenges were not something we were able to overcome. That's why we had to terminate it. The entire team had to shift its focus on to something else, which was this basketball game Run and Gun. We worked on this instead.
JS: What was your role on the fighting game? Was it like Street Fighter?
MK: Well, rather than Street Fighter which had sporting rivals, probably another title which is closer to the one I worked on is Mortal Kombat. In the sense that the characters are more like monsters, abnormal characters. So in that sense it was closer to Mortal Kombat. My job was planning, basically the director. Also art direction. So I was working on the title completely.
JS: The monster aspect sounds fascinating.
JS: You should scan it and put it online!
JS: If you can, I'd love to include an image of artwork, in your chapter.
MK: If I can find it, sure.
JS: How many characters could you select from?
MK: I'd say there were 8 characters. That was really an extraordinary program I was thinking about. You know, let me explain why I say that. Those characters were really extraordinary - for example I took some characters from horror movies. Like Medusa, whose hair is made of snakes, and also a Centaur, which is part human and part horse. Also, do you know Kannon? (1) The bodhisattva? (2)
(1) Also known as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy
(2) A being of enlightenment
JS: The Buddhist deity?
MK: Yes, with a thousand hands behind her. And all of these creatures are supposed to be robots. In order to feel satisfied when destroying those monsters, part of the Centaur, and Medusa, and the Buddhist deity of mercy... Parts of them would fall off, after one hit, or two hits. We were trying to do that using 2D images, not even 3D. So the manpower required to create and program that was really beyond imagination.
JS: This game sounds AMAZING.
JS: Lots of people will be interested. Put it online!
MK: I see. I'm going to think about it! But I think if we were to make the game using modern 3D technology, the result would be just an ordinary title. The way we worked 20 years ago, drawing all the images by hand and developing the sekaikan, I think that may still hold interest. But making the game with today's technology would just yield an ordinary, run-of-the-mill game.
JS: Sekaikan! There's been discussion in English circles on the importance of that word. It has deep layers of meaning; the atmosphere, world lore, world view, the background behind things.
MK: Yes. The word sekaikan includes everything, it's the magic that attracts players into the world of that arcade game. How can we get players immersed in the world, using the surroundings? So probably it's very hard to explain that in English. The sekaikan is the most essential part of any game. Because that represents the entire attraction the title might have. When people play games, they only have a limited space and time. For example if you think about films, if you go to a movie theatre you are there sharing the same thing with other people, all present in that space. You are surrounded by a certain world in your imagination. That way people can be attracted to something more easily, and become absorbed much more easily. But when it comes to home console games, and arcade games, all we have is just the screen. The world we would like to express to the players, is represented by the limited space of that screen. It might be small, tiny even. By moving one's eyes [to the side] the player might suddenly be faced with day-to-day life. On the screen we're trying to express non-daily life. Sekaikan is the key to attract the player, get them absorbed, totally immersed in the new environment and value system, the surroundings represented in the world of that game by that screen.
JS: This fighting game, did it have a name?
MK: I have to think... I forgot! I'm sorry.
This is taken from Volume 1, which featured 526 pages and 36 interviews, detailing unreleased games, office environments, and exotic trivia not documented anywhere else.
Volume 2 is much the same (pictured below), but covers the darker side of game development in Japan - including yakuza involvement, violent staff beatings, corporate fraud, jail time, intimidation kidnappings, and a certain high profile developer who contemplated suicide. There's also trivia, lighthearted cartoons, and rare items such as staff listings for all early Namco games.
Volume 2 could only be produced thanks to sales of Volume 1. If you value the documentation of Japanese games history, please spread the word of Volume 2's release. It's the only way Volume 3 can be completed.