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The anniversary of the TurboGrafx-16 completely passed me by. Which perhaps reinforces what Christian Nutt wrote in his recent 6-page feature, on how it's now an almost forgotten system. it's especially unfortunate, since I consider myself a fan of NEC/Hudson's hardware, and the games.
The roundtable discussion from those involved with the system, in the aforementioned article, reminded me of the interviews I conducted for my book, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. Many developers worked with the original Japanese hardware, the PC Engine and its CD-ROM add-on. It's interesting that some recollections match what occurred in the US, with regards to Hudson doing much of the heavy lifting for the system. According to Takaki KOBAYASHI and Keite ABE, formerly of dB-SOFT, Hudson would license games from other companies, subcontract developers to port it, and then also arrange a third-party publisher to release and market it.
To commemorate the TG-16 anniversary, I'm publishing PCE related extracts from my book online. The quotes are taken from much longer interviews, and I've had to re-arrange the footnotes as best I can. Footnotes found in the printed version are now replaced with (*) and are placed directly beneath the paragraph they belong to. I've also included a memorial page of a PC Engine artist, with recollections from his colleagues. There were several such pages throughout the book.
If you like what you read here, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers can be found on the US Amazon, the UK Amazon, and also the other country specific Amazons. It's 526 pages, with 36 interviewees, covering all manner of previously undocumented information.
Large b&w photo of Mr Sugiyama taken by Nicolas Datiche, the World Heroes 2 screen taken from Mobygames, other game screens by Hardcore Gaming 101, with some Riot Zone supplements by Mobygames. Hokkaido photos by the author.
Visiting Hokkaido, the home of Hudson
7~8 October 2013
4am. There is never a good way to deal with such an early rise. But I wanted to visit the northern island of Hokkaido, and I had been invited to interview three gentlemen from dB-SOFT: composer Yasuhito Saito, and programmers Takaki Kobayashi and Keita Abe. In addition, Mr Saito spent time at Data West, and could give the inside story on the unreleased Bounty Arms. Meanwhile Misters Kobayashi and Abe were later involved with Agenda, a company hired by Hudson to produce games for the PC Engine, and now Smileboom, which is doing some interesting things on the 3DS.
I also visited the abandoned Hudson Laboratory, on the outskirts of Sapporo. It was recommended by my Hokkaido guide, Matthew Fitsko, who sent me links to the realtor website offering it for lease. We caught a bus and then walked through the woods to find the lab, lonely and hidden amidst hills and pinewood. The perimeter was marked by yellow tape, warning outsiders not to cross.
I crossed the yellow line, wandered around, and pressed up against the office windows, noting an empty sticky-tape dispenser with what appeared to be some former staff's name on the front. What looked like a trashed floppy drive lay in a waste paper basket. There were some filing cabinets, but the labels were too far away to read. I took hi-res shots with my camera, then used the zoom function on the display, hoping to read, "Unreleased Games Be Yonder!" The labels read, "Timing Charts" and "Office Supplies". There were no magical discoveries at the lab, just lots of overgrown foliage. It was a poignant reminder of how fragile the games industry is. At one time NEC and Hudson led the vanguard for the CD medium in games, and produced a multitude of hardware variations, such as the PC Engine, its CD add-on, several varieties of combined system, US variations, a handheld PCE, plus later the PC-FX. In Japan the PC Engine held a strong position.
The cataclysmic fall for Hudson, later to be absorbed and forgotten within Konami is tragic, and it can happen to any company. The poignancy was heightened for me when later in the trip I attended the Hudson Memorial Night in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Although Hudson staff moved on, they still get together to give informal talks to an enrapt crowd. Two floors underground in a repurposed club, eating Takahashi Meijin dumplings (a speciality specifically for Hudson Night), and listening to the Hudson gang talk about the old days, with slides and photos projected on a wall.
Before leaving the lab, to attend the interviews in Sapporo, I noticed two gentleman by an upper floor window, eyeing me suspiciously as I took photographs. I suggested to my compatriots that we reveal ourselves to be foreign investors wanting to lease the property, so as to get a tour inside. Unfortunately the buses had a schedule to keep, and so did we. Onwards!
The supplementary DVD I produced contains footage of this visit to the Hudson lab, a night drive around Sapporo, footage from the inside of a capsule hotel, and an unreleased Hudson PCE game.
Interview with Takaki Kobayashi and Keita Abe
7 October 2013, Sapporo, Hokkaido
After our initial interview with Mr Saito in a Sapporo coffee shop, we walked to the SmileBoom offices nearby, to conduct interviews with Takaki Kobayashi and Keita Abe, which had been arranged for us by Mr Saito. All three gentlemen had known each other at dB-SOFT, so this was something of a reunion. The atmosphere was jovial and nostalgic. For much of their careers Misters Kobayashi and Abe worked alongside each other, so there is much overlap for their questions.
Taken at the end of the day, from left: Takaki Kobayashi, the author, Matt Fitsko, and Keita Abe
Prince of Persia - PCE CD-ROM, 1989 (Compression)
World Heroes 2 - PCE CD-ROM, 1993 (Tool programming)
Fatal Fury 2 - PCE CD-ROM, 1994 (Tool programming)
Ore no Ryouri - PlayStation, 1999
Currently head of SmileBoom - developer of SmileBASIC / Petitcom for the NDS and 3DS, and also Action Game Maker / Indie Game Maker for PC.
Prince of Persia - PCE CD-ROM, 1989 (Main Programming)
Crest of Wolf / Riot Zone - PCE CD-ROM, 1993 (Main Programming)
World Heroes 2 - PCE CD-ROM, 1993 (Main Programming)
Ore no Ryouri - PlayStation, 1999
JS: Which games did you work on?
KA: After we became independent and established Agenda - I can't remember how long but it probably took about 6 months for one game - we were making games for the PC Engine, for Hudson. Three of them, including Prince of Persia, Crest of Wolf,* and World Heroes 2.
*(Japanese name of Riot Zone on PC Engine CD-ROM (1992); sequel to arcade Riot City)
JS: Regarding your PC Engine games, did Agenda create the full games?
KA: The entire thing.
JS: Prince of Persia and World Heroes 2 were conversions, but Crest of Wolf was a sequel to an arcade game by Westone...
KA: Crest of Wolf was a sort-of "semi-remake" - not a remake, more like a half-a-remake. Because there was an original arcade version, but we changed some of the characters or stages. So we used some of the original designs and characters, but we added and changed some characters or designs.
JS: Did you work with Westone, when developing Crest of Wolf?
KA: Yes, that's right. At that time their game was only available in game centres. I saw it, learned a lot, and then came back.
JS: Were you shown Riot City's arcade source code when creating Crest of Wolf for PC Engine?
KA: For Crest of Wolf, we borrowed the arcade PCB, and programmed the game from scratch while playing the arcade version for reference.
TK: I'm sorry but I wasn't involved as a programmer so I am unsure of the details, but the CPU was very different, so I think it probably amounted to just glancing at the source code. Alternatively, we may have ported the code by converting all the CPU instructions with the use of macros...
JS: The credits mention Akafuku Ieiri and Moro Okamora from Red Company Corporation.* Did you meet them? How was Red involved?
*(As visual director and character design respectively)
KA: The development of Crest of Wolf was subcontracted to us from Hudson. Since Hudson created the graphics for us, and since we did not have direct contact with Red Company, I don't know the details regarding Red's involvement.
TK: Maybe they were participating in some way on the design side of things?
JS: Do you know anything about the politics? I spoke with Mr Nishizawa of Westone, and the way I understand it, Sega ended up owning the characters in the original Riot City, which is why it had to be "half remade" with new characters.
KA: I did not know that detail. But I knew there was politics involved. At that time Agenda was not making the graphics for this game, so we were told, "Please change it to this."
JS: To what degree did Agenda work with Westone? Did Mr Nishizawa visit Agenda's office? Or did you liaise only with Hudson?
KA: No, Westone dealt directly with Hudson, and I, myself, only once went properly to greet Mr Nishizawa, but that was the extent of it. All the way from Hokkaido.
JS: Otherwise Agenda handled all other aspects?
KA: Everything to do with programming, yes.
JS: Did you send update reports, game portions?
KA: Yes, something like that happened between Hudson and Agenda. We did not know whether Hudson was showing it to Westone or not.
JS: I don't recall Mr Nishizawa mentioning Agenda when discussing Crest of Wolf.
KA: My involvement with Westone was small, just visiting the office and saying hello quickly, and then leaving.
JS: Is Agenda credited in the game?
KA: Probably not, I think.* There was nothing in the work done for Hudson.
* (While Mr Abe and others are named in the credits, there's no mention of Agenda, only Westone & Hudson)
JS: You also worked on Prince of Persia...
JS: Prince of Persia was not published by Hudson, but rather by Riverhillsoft...*
*(Riverhillsoft is perhaps best known for the J.B. Harold Murder Club series; later Doctor Hauzer (3DO) and OverBlood (PS1))
Matt Fitsko: So Hudson was developing lots and lots of games by sub-contracting through places like Agenda. Then they would negotiate with other companies, like Riverhillsoft, for the sale and promotion. So you have many games that Hudson was developing, but it would appear that it was multiple companies publishing them.
JS: Just to show that many companies were developing for the PC Engine, so they can encourage others to join them?
KA: Yes, exactly, so Hudson didn't want the consumers to think that Hudson was the only company, and rather many companies were making games for it. So it's a major thing.
JS: So they funded development, and then paid other companies to publish them?
MF: Not necessarily paid, but negotiated with other companies to handle the sales.
JS: Creating a false front to show that everyone loves the PC Engine...
KA: But this is not what I heard directly from the executives. That's only what I think.
JS: What was it like working for SNK on World Heroes 2? Did SNK visit Hokkaido? Did you visit them in Osaka?
TK: Unfortunately we didn't have any direct dealings with SNK.
KA: I did not directly meet with SNK itself. Before development started, I travelled with a Hudson representative to an arcade where they were performing a location test. I observed and played the game there. After that, I remember that we developed the game while referring to the arcade PCB, and did not have any meetings or other contact with anyone other than Hudson. On PC Engine, with Garou Densetsu* and World Heroes 2, development started at around the same time. Hudson was really, really pleased with the work, and how quickly we were able to produce such high quality stuff.
* (Referring to Fatal Fury 2, circa 1994)
JS: Did SNK give you source code?
TK: The source code was provided.
KA: But as mentioned with Crest of Wolf, we borrowed the PCB and used that for reference while programming the game from scratch.
JS: How were your roles divided?
KA: I did all the programming.
TK: And I manipulated the graphics data, to squeeze it all down, consolidate it. I made this tool, "Tsumetsume-kun".*
1* (From 詰める (tsumeru): to squeeze, cram in, pack tightly)
2* (I think perhaps they're referring to graphics which were re-used in a cut-scene)
JS: I never noticed - I'll have to check!
TK: I'm not sure that it was actually the pants and the turban, but I had to fit all of the images for player animation into 128x128 pixel areas, so I cut down on the character data by reusing portions that were even slightly similar. I think there were other minor parts that were reused, but I've completely forgotten. Sorry about that.
KA: On PC Engine, with Garou Densetsu and World Heroes 2, development started at around the same time. Hudson was really, really pleased with the work, and how quickly we were able to produce such high quality stuff.
TK: Ahhh... I have a simple love for programming games.
Interview with Tomonori Sugiyama
30 September 2013, Tokyo
I was put in touch with Tomonori Sugiyama after speaking with his colleague Yutaka Isokawa, who suggested I could interview both of them. We enjoyed a meal at an incredible tofu restaurant, before walking to the Vanguard offices. What fascinated me about the company is the number of projects it has worked on as an outside contractor. Vanguard did a lot of work with Game Arts, notably on the Lunar series and later Grandia, and it was also involved with some very unusual Saturn hardware add-ons. The company also took Chou Aniki in interesting new directions and handled Falcom's Eiyuu Densetsu Yume no Kiseki brand. More than all this, Mr Sugiyama conveys some of the complexities inherent in the Japanese games industry. The single company name you see on a box isn't always the whole story.
JS: Let's discuss Ai Chou Aniki. It involved Bits Laboratory,* Vanguard, Masaya, and Nippon Computer Systems. It seems complicated.
*(Not to be confused with the UK's Bits Studios, which did outsource work for Japanese developers)
TS: It is. NCS is the same as Masaya.
JS: Masaya was the games division for NCS.
TS: Basically, NCS and Masaya are the exact same entity. They just released games under the name of Masaya whenever they launched a title. Regarding Ai Chou Aniki... Actually, when this offer came from NCS, we were just starting out our company, and the size of the business was very small. So we were able to be involved thanks to Bits Laboratory vouching for us, because they were an already established company. So Bits came to us, saying, "Why not work on this project together?" Bits took care of most of the project development, whereas Vanguard was responsible for the planning and the graphics of the project.
JS: NCS initiated the idea for a Cho Aniki sequel, then Bits and Vanguard made it together?*
*(What's interesting is that the Cho Aniki sequel took a different direction to the original; mechanically innovative and thematically more bizarre)
TS: Yes, so the directing was done by Bits Laboratory. The programming was done by Bits Laboratory. Whereas Vanguard did the graphics and planning. The instructions we were given was just to work on it as freely as we wanted, based upon the original version. We had the discretion to come up with a new version while working from general ideas supplied by NCS. Of course the editing and checks were done by the designers, which were sent off to NCS.
JS: Were you directly involved with the design? Were you hands on, or more in a managerial position?
TS: We were basically cooperating on the planning portion of the project, whereas Bits Laboratory acted as the game director. Basically we were responsible for coming up with the plans for what kind of stages would be involved in the game, and how the game would proceed. How the levels would be expressed.
JS: Did you personally draw stage layouts?
TS: For the most part I was acting as the manager, or team leader, giving out instructions to the staff. Although I did draw some of the layouts and so on. There was a very cooperative team atmosphere within our group, because that was important for us, to come up with nice visuals, particularly for Ai Chou Aniki. The atmosphere of the game was very important, and it really turned out well. We tried to maintain that kind of cooperation in order to promote ideas coming from the entire staff. So we all encouraged each other to come up with great ideas, and if they were good we would go with it. If they were not so great, we would reconsider and come up with a better one.
JS: Ai Chou Aniki has a unique control system: the position of your character is vertical, and the player enters different button combinations to attack. How did these ideas came about?
TS: I think it was during the planning meetings. We were brainstorming how to create a worthy successor and improve on the first game.
JS: Outside of Japan the series is mainly attributed to Masaya, but Vanguard left a lasting creative mark. How do you feel about it?
TS: Well, yes, I can say that Cho Aniki can boast excellent visuals, but I think that rather than making a major contribution, we had the honour of taking a small part in the development. I think the reason Cho Aniki is so long-lived is because of all the effort exerted by all the relevant parties, including Masaya, Bits Laboratory and us.
JS: I want to document that Vanguard played a key role in the series' early formation.
Interview with Makoto Goto
21 October 2013, Tokyo
I met Makoto Goto for coffee one afternoon, simply to chat, and without any expectation of an interview. However, as I discovered, he worked on some rather interesting games, and was in charge of several high-profile projects in later years. Since it was unplanned, it's more of a casual conversation. We spent around an hour discussing the past, present and future of Japanese games. What I found especially interesting was Mr Goto's involvement with development studio Winds, which was used as an outsource company by a lot of other developers, producing parts of games through to entire titles. Mr Goto is also the gentleman who asked Phil Fish that famous question... It's unfortunate that particular Q&A garnered so much attention, when the portfolios of both gentlemen are considerably more interesting - notably the LaserDisc title cited above, which is discussed in the full interview. As you will also see in the full printed interview, there is no negative feeling between the developers.
~ Selected portfolio ~
Winds Co., Ltd. employee
Shockman / Shubibinman 2 - PC Engine, 1991 (Game and AI programmer)
Unnamed RPG (NDA) - PC Engine, 1992 (Sub-prog., events production, minigames)
Don Quixote: A Dream of Seven Crystals* - LaserActive Mega LD, 1994 (Main prog., developed LD control library, battle system & enemy check tool)
*(A fascinating laserdisc game for the Sega Mega Drive add-on for Pioneer's LaserActive system. According to the LaserActive Preservation Project it's an epic RPG with maps, equipment and random battles, spanning 30 hours; not to be confused with the arcade laserdisc game Super Don Quix-ote from 1984. For more visit: http://laseractive.wordpress.com and their YouTube page www.youtube.com/user/LAPProject)
Hyaku Monogatari - PCE CD-ROM, 1995 (Main prog., dev. animation engine & tools, streaming movie engine & tools, original script sys., managed budget, organised team of 10)
JS: Mr Goto, you're a programmer? When did you start?
MG: Yes, I'm a programmer. When I was 19 years old.
JS: You were an assistant programmer?
MG: I was a sub-programmer and worked on Shubibinman 2.* This was my first job, and the first title I worked on.
*(Four part series of platformers on PC Engine and SFC; second title released in USA as Shockman for TG-16)
JS: When did you want to make games?
MG: The first year of senior high school. When I was a senior high school student I wanted to make a game. I liked making programs. Some programming magazines contained type-in listings. These were BASIC programs, the BASIC language. I typed up some of these programs, and I studied them. How to play and how to control things on-screen. I learned how to program some games by studying these type-in listings in magazines. When I was a high school student I also worked with assembly language - I learned it specifically to make a game. I continued with programming after I graduated.
JS: Shubibinman 2 for PC Engine was assembly.
MG: Only assembly language! I enjoyed learning assembly language, it was very exciting! I was really excited to work with it because before that the BASIC language was slow. Very slow. But in contrast, assembly language was almost too fast!
JS: So your first experience on consoles was for the PC Engine?
MG: Yes, the PC Engine. When I was a student at the prep-school for university, I needed to earn money through part-time jobs. I was looking for a job, an arubaito, and I found out about this programming job. This was for making Shubibinman 2. For the first time I met Toshirou Tsuchida,* and also Satoshi Nakai.* I met them at this time and was allowed to join the team working on the Shubibinman 2 project. The point is, I was able to make programs using the assembly language.
1* (Producer on Shubibinman 2 and Cybernator, perhaps best known for Front Mission)
2* (Amazing artist, worked on Cybernator, Culdscept, Code Veronica, many others)
JS: You worked on the AI and the 2D shooting sections, right?
MG: Yes, the shooting stages - for those, all the programming was done by me. Plus some of the AI for the boss characters, some stages, and a lot of characters... I made the AI programming for quite a few smaller characters.
JS: For the zako enemies?
MG: Zako! Yes, yes, small enemies. Plus I worked on the level designs with the game's designer and artist.*
* (Tomoharo Saitou; he also did character designs for Streets of Rage 2)
JS: You mean Tomoharo Saitou. He passed away in 2006. I am including memorial pages in my book.
MG: Oh! That's nice! Is it also possible to add a mention for "Suu Urabe" in the book? Suu Urabe, real name [redacted], was a character artist on Shubibinman 2. He passed away in 2001. Thank you for deciding to include memorial pages for Saitou-san and Urabe-san, your book will be my treasure.
JS: Do you have a photograph with Urabe-san, which I can print?
MG: I don't have a good picture unfortunately. I will email you a picture that was in an article in PC Engine Magazine (MaruKatsu PC Engine) from 1990. I'll scan it. I was so young in that picture!
JS: How many people were there on the Shubibinman 2 team?
MG: Only 4 or 5 people? A very small team.
JS: Mr Nakai mentioned Winds, an outsource company. He produced graphics for Winds, which would pass it on to a developer.
MG: Ahh yes, that's right. I feel nostalgic discussing all this.
JS: What kind of company was WINDS?
MG: It was a small company. This is the company's URL.
JS: Did they specialise in outsourcing?
MG: Yes, they did.
JS: What kind of relationship did Winds have with Masaya?
MG: Some members who quit NCS established and founded Winds. Satoshi Nakai and Tomoharu Saitou were members of the establishing founders, in 1989. I joined the company the next year, in 1990.*
*(Earliest work by Winds, according to their website, is character design & pixel graphics for the original Shubibinman on PC Engine in 1989, while more recently the company worked on the 3D computer graphics backgrounds in MGS V: Ground Zeroes.)
JS: How many people worked at Winds?
MG: When I joined the company, about 10 people were working there including me.
JS: For Shubibinman 2 did you work from home?
MG: I worked at the office to make the game.
JS: The office of Winds?
MG: Yes, Winds! It was a very small office. This was a condominium, or rather one of the rooms in a condominium. Very small! Like an apartment.
From left, some of the Shubibinman 2 team: Suu Urabe, character artist and known comic creator in Japan. Tomoharo Saitou (seated), artist and character designer. Norihiko Yonesaka, assistant producer. Toshiro Tsuchida (seated), producer, and in later years producer on Arc the Lad for PlayStation. Koji Hayama, musician, in later years for Half-Minute Hero. On the far right, Makoto Goto when he was 19 years old.
JS: Your resume mentions an unnamed "character action-RPG" for PC Engine, from 1992. Can you reveal the name or some info?
MG: This was going to be an RPG using a character from a certain famous action game. I joined the project partway through as an event system programmer. However, the project was cancelled several months later. I was very disappointed.
~In memory of~
Passed away 7 October 2001
Kaizou Choujin Shubibinman - PC Engine, 1989 (Character design)
Sol Bianca - PCE CD-ROM, 1990 (NPC design)
Shubibinman 2 / Shockman - PC Engine, 1991 (Scenario writer, graphic designer)
Unfortunately an English Wikipedia page doesn't exist for him. He passed away in 2001. In addition to working on games, he was also a famous indie comic artist in Japan. He was a really good guy and very kind to people.
- Makoto Goto, colleague from Winds
He was working as a freelance talent for NCS since before the formation of Winds. I first met him in a subcontracting interview. I was amazed when I saw his work. One of these days, my time will come too. On that day... Suu-san, you better let me read the rest of your unfinished comic.
- Masayuki Suzuki, colleague from Winds
He was my superior at work. We were pretty close in age, but he had previously done work with Masaya. Even though his artwork was dainty and cute, he was a powerful person, full of vitality. He was the first person among my friends to pass away... It's already been about 20 years maybe? He was a great singer, with a pair of lungs like an opera singer! When we went out for karaoke, we'd be like, "You sure don't need a microphone!"
- Satoshi Nakai, colleague from Winds
As taken from The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers.