Part II

—Where did the name “AKIMAN” originally come from?

Yasuda: You know how in Dragon Quest, you only have 4 characters to write your name, right? Okamoto used to use “Yo-chi-ya-n”, and I was using “Ak-i-ra”, but I didn’t like the way that rolled off my tongue. So, in the spirit of Ultraman, I went for something heroic and added “man” to it, hence Akiman. I loved Dragon Quest so much, that after that I just kept using AKIMAN. Ever since moving to Osaka (which coincided with the Forgotten Worlds development) I’ve been using the AKIMAN name.

—I see. Returning to your career, it seems that Street Fighter II was a real turning point for you.

Yasuda: Yes, it was. I had originally just wanted to be an artist, and I joined Capcom with that intent. Just as I was thinking, “The game industry is great! I can draw all the time!”, Street Fighter II became an overnight success, and my status and reputation at suddenly Capcom shot up. Then I got assigned to be the guy who oversees and manages all the character design work in Yoshiki Okamoto’s department. In other words, for all major Capcom games, there was now a “Yasuda Juku School”.2 New character designers at Capcom would first go through a training period with me, then they’d be placed in their roles. It was fun, but gradually it became this thing where my bosses were telling me “Yasuda, your time is too important, you can’t be doing pixel art.”

—Less time in the trenches, more time managing, in other words.

Yasuda: Around that time, Nishitani told me, “I know this developer at a certain game company who once released a huge hit game. He doesn’t do much at the company now, but because of his past success, they can’t fire him, so they just keep him around as a desk worker.” Nishitani didn’t want them to happen to him, so he said, “I’m going to take my bonus now while I can”, and then he quit Capcom to found Arika.

I myself had seen a similar fate befall other senior colleagues, where they ceased to be used by the company, but were kept on, unable to quit now. I wanted to be a graphic artist, not a desk jockey—so I was determined to forge a path for myself at Capcom, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to find one. Every day was spent teaching new employees, while at night, I’d spend my entire evening doodling and sketching. Even though I was occasionally told to stop by my superiors, I still managed to carve out a bit of pixel art work, and I kept on drawing even through this period.

—What developments did you take part in after Street Fighter II?

Yasuda: The Vampire (Darkstalkers) series. Though I guess, during this period, my involvement in the actual game developments was very minor. By the time we got to Quiz Naniro Dreams, I was pretty much just helping out with minor requests from the younger employees. I went to meetings not really knowing what projects were coming down the pipeline, or what work I’d be doing. I felt like a machine, where people just came to me if they had a question about something art-related. On top of that, Capcom hired Kinu Nishimura, and people were saying she was an even better illustrator than me, and that hurt my pride a lot.

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Sadly Yasuda had less chances to work on actual sprite designs after Street Fighter II. Wolverine, from X-MEN: Children of the Atom, was one of his later creations. His spritework for Chun Li in Third Strike is also very impressive, despite being a torturous process as described below.

—Did you also work on X-MEN?

Yasuda: Yeah. I was in charge of Wolverine. I was anxious about it though, because I wasn’t sure I still had the chops to create good pixel art. At that point, I was still good enough. However, as time went on, it took me longer and longer to create pixel art, so that by the time we got to Street Fighter III, it took me 2 years to do Chun Li.

—Two years?!

Yasuda: And what’s worse, I only finished about 70-80% of the art for her within that time. People were wondering about me… “What’s up with Yasuda? What has he been doing all this time?” Honestly, I don’t think I would have finished it no matter how much extra time I had. I was completely defeated. I would finish one part of the pixel art, then I’d have to check a bunch of other people’s work… it was just a mess. Even Noritaka Funamizu told me, “Yasuda, you’ve got other real work to do. No more pixel art.”

While I labored away in that condition, 3D graphics eventually hit the scene. I guess they figured I could get something going there, so I ended up helping out with Star Gladiator.

—Your first 3D game.

Yasuda: Star Gladiator had started out as a training project for a group that was ostensibly created to research 3D graphics. After two years of such research, however, they were told to now try and make it into a real game. They had thought all along that this was just a research group, so they became very suspicious after this plan was announced. So I was sent in by Capcom as the “company man” to try and smooth things over with everyone.

—That’s rough.

Yasuda: I brought a lot of 2D graphic artists on board the project, but of course with only several months to study up on 3D, there wasn’t a lot I could do. I think the original team felt like they were being made fools of. It injured their pride.

—And your knowledge lied in a completely different realm.

Yasuda: If it were today, I think I’d know a way to go about it, but at that time, it was a disaster. We couldn’t even get the characters to crouch correctly. I did end up doing a lot of 3D work though: character design, texturing, modeling.

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Kinu Nishimura’s take on Chun Li. The model on the right is Nishimura’s hypothesized re-design “for Japanese audiences/tastes”, and includes a wider skirt, slightly shorter legs, a longer ribbon, and other subtle changes. A uniquely talented designer in her own right (see the interview here), her presence apparently unnerved Yasuda at a low-point in his career at Capcom.

—I remember Katsuya Terada praised your character designs.

Yasuda: He did! His praise really saved me. There’s actually a lot that I wasn’t satsified with in terms of the gameplay too, for Star Gladiator. I look back on it now though and feel like there’s nothing I could personally have done.

—It was around this time you temporarily withdrew from game development, and worked on the Turn A Gundam anime as a character designer.

Yasuda: Okamoto introduced me to Gundam director Yoshiyuki Tomino. He brought me on board for Turn A Gundam, and I decided I would work for Sunrise in Tokyo. I hadn’t finished the animation patterns yet for Chun Li for Street Fighter III, though, so someone from Capcom took a business trip out to Tokyo and met with me. I saw it as Capcom hounding me though, and for awhile, I felt pretty neurotic about the whole situation. It hurts to get kicked when you’re down. And I couldn’t complain to anyone either. It was a depressing time for me.

—What kind of person was Tomino?

Yasuda: Tomino was also going through a dark time himself then, so we could sympathize with and support each other. Nevertheless, he was making Gundam, and I trusted him 100 percent. When it came to his working style, Tomino was very good at knowing where he needed to invest his energy, and where he could be more relaxed. For example, when designing characters, he took his time in the beginning, but later there might be a bunch of rush work to finish all by yourself in one week. That pacing sometimes led to me having work I couldn’t finish, but Tomino never scolded me. Instead he gave me detailed directions on how to draw the characters he wanted. And it wasn’t an order from on high either, but more like, “hey, if you don’t like these ideas, go ahead and draw it your own way.”

Here’s another example of Tomino’s work process. I had drawn a rough concept illustration of Sochie Helm, and I then spent three days re-drawing and cleaning it up in a more finished style. When Tomino heard about that, he went off. “What are you doing! You’re supposed to be the character designer, don’t do stuff like that. Cleaning up your lines is the animator’s job, so don’t be too fussy about how rough your sketches are. Anyway, your ideas are good ideas! Don’t think, when you’re drawing, that you always have to make everything better than everyone else. A designer contends in the world of ideas; it’s the task of the animation director and the animators to follow your vision.”

—I see he had a very bottom-up style of management.

Yasuda: Yes. Another thing I realized is that the drawings done by people less skilled than me would gradually become OK as the animation process went on. That was really exciting to see! Drawings that I thought looked pretty bad at first—once you colored and animated them, they actually didn’t look bad at all, and they fit the Turn A world perfectly.

—That makes sense. Everyone was shocked when they first saw Syd Mead’s designs for Turn A Gundam, but as the story progressed, that initial negative reaction completely disappeared.

Yasuda: Yeah, exactly. They became very popular. Even in those magazines which said early on that Turn A Gundam looked ugly, it ended up being very popular. As I learned, drawings and animation are different beasts.

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Yasuda created this Gundam
painting in high school.

—At this time when everything seemed to be going wrong in your life, it sounds like Turn A Gundam really saved you.

Yasuda: It was a healing experience. I learned a lot of new things during that time.

—Did your perspective on games change after your work on Turn A Gundam and Overman King Gainer?

Yasuda: Yeah, I was able to see the work I had done at Capcom more objectively. In the game industry, I had tried to create games in a way that personified my own ideals. Conversely, in the world of animation, I learned to have confidence in not doing everything by myself, in doing only what needed to be done.

—After your stint in anime, you went to America and finally made your grand return to games with the spaghetti western Red Dead Revolver.

Yasuda: It crashed and burned.

—Ahh, yes. The development was halted this year (2003). There’s a lot I’d like to ask about there. Why did you go to America in the first place, to make Red Dead Revolver?

Yasuda: Director K3-kun (Tsujita Keizou) was in America, and it started out as his game over there. He had these new plans for an online survival game, but there were communication problems and he was having problems getting it off the ground. I had also been thinking about going to America after Turn A Gundam, and he was waiting for me. When I arrived and saw his original plans, they were really interesting. So I decided I’d move here and work on the game with him. My goals were twofold: first, to once again reignite my passion and make another proper game; and second, by working together with K3-kun I hoped to reform my masochistic personality.

—How was developing a game in America different from developing a game in Japan?

Yasuda: Of the staff at Angel Studio (the developers based in San Diego), only a few had any experience developing games. Normally when you make a game, it’s an iterative process of repeated tweaks and improvements until you approach something “complete”; however, the producer at Angel Studio treated tweaks and refinements as unnecessary, extra work that wasn’t budgeted for. That was very annoying. The more adjustments we made the more the cost ballooned, so we couldn’t do anything. It’s a real shame—the programmers were skilled, and I had a good working relationship with the graphics artists too. It was just incredibly frustrating.

—Did people in America recognize you as the Akiman from Capcom?

Yasuda: Well, at first no one noticed, but then some Chinese and Korean staff came on board, and I started getting some stares. Eventually they came over to politely ask, “Are you Akiman…?”

—I understand Red Dead Revolver featured music from Ennio Morricone.

Yasuda: Morricone is awesome. The music he made for Compañeros, a lesser known Western film, is really great. It has all these people shouting in it. We used it as-is for Red Dead Revolver. Besides the Morricone tracks, Zuntata composed the rest of the music. It had a perfect Western vibe. Unfortunately, we were never able to announce their involvement.

—How close to completion was Red Dead Revolver?

Yasuda: The basic ingredients of the game were all finished, and we were beginning to see the finish line. It was around that level I think. We revealed a demo at last year’s E3 (2002), but the truth is we had been scrambling to finish it the day before the expo. It had a lot of problems but the reception was good, and the mood among the developers was positive: everyone was like, “Alright, let’s do this!” It was then, however, that the issue of director K3’s working visa came up. It was expiring and he had to go back to Japan. Capcom might have been able to quickly procure a renewal, but there was no time. When K3 returned a month later to America, the passion and excitement we felt after E3 had somehow dissipated, and we were all kind of middling our way through the development.

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Some of Akiman’s original concept art and illustrations for the first, abandoned version of Red Dead Revolver.

—What awful timing. You have to strike while the iron’s hot, as they say. How did the decision get made to halt the development?

Yasuda: At some point I was told to come back to Japan for a meeting. I was vaguely aware of what was going on, but I was also busy with work and had been sick before that, so I had absolutely no plans to return to Japan. I also felt that if they just wanted to tell me the development was cancelled, they should send someone over here, not the other way around. They wouldn’t budge though, so K3 and the rest of the Japanese staff went back to Japan, while I stayed in America. Then the development was cancelled.

—What did you do after that?

Yasuda: I didn’t go back to Japan for another month. The Americans on the development didn’t know the project had been cancelled, you see. They were still continuing to work at it vigorously, and I was friends with all the graphics artists… so, as wrong as it was, I couldn’t face them and tell them the truth. I think they knew something was up though.

—Does that mean there’s still a chance the development is going on right now, then…?

Yasuda: Only Capcom pulled out. Angel Studios did not.

—And Angel Studios became a subsidiary of Rockstar Games after this.

Yasuda: I don’t know what Rockstar is doing with Red Dead Revolver, unfortunately.

—Did you meet up with everyone at Capcom after you got back to Japan?

Yasuda: When I returned, Okamoto (who had then quit Capcom himself) told me “I’m sorry how things turned out. I know you did your best.” When I went back to Capcom, everyone expressed their sympathies. For the first time I realized that everyone back at Capcom Japan had been rooting for and looking forward to Red Dead Revolver. I was really surprised.

—Why did you quit Capcom?

Yasuda: Well, I had actually quit Capcom awhile back. Okamoto had helped me set up a corporation, “Akiman Corp.” However, for reasons related to my work visa, I contracted with Capcom USA for the Red Dead Revolver development. But when I got back to Japan and the question of renewing that employment contract came up, Okamoto had already left, so there was no department for me to re-contract with.

—Red Dead Revolver was meant to be your re-entry into the world of game development. It’s a real shame it ended in a misfire as it did. What kind of feelings do you have about the experience now?

Original trailer for Red Dead Revolver.
Note the “Compañeros” theme.

Yasuda: The thing I look back on with happiness about Red Dead Revolver, was the staff that I really enjoyed working with. They would tell me with confidence how good this game was going to be. Darren Vader, the art director at Angel Studio, really respected me as an artist, and actually quit the project he had been working on midway to join Red Dead Revolver and work with me. The development took a huge upturn in quality after that. I’m very thankful for that encounter, and others like it which I had there.

—Do you still feel like making games?

Yasuda: I still sometimes dream about making games, even now. But it’s very easy to burn out when you dedicate yourself to game development, so I’m waiting until I feel recovered. At the moment I’m limiting myself to projects where I can work as an illustrator only. Lately I’ve been thinking about making a game for my homepage. I could, for example, take one of my drawings of Chun Li and letting users control her movements with a keyboard. PC resolution is much higher than game consoles, so it should be possible to do some high quality pixel art and animation. If I can create animation frames like this, the way I used to for our old 2D fighting games, then a game should be possible. Something simple: character transformations as you get strong, a lot of kicking and punching, destroying barrels or something. That would be a fun game to make.

—You’d like to return to the days of making games on your own, rather than working in big groups, in other words.

Yasuda: Yeah. The Red Dead Revolver development had so many ambiguities and uncertainties. It was a big group project, it was in America, there were communication problems, there were problems with my own abilities… given all these issues, I honestly don’t know what the real reason was that it never got completed. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me like it was a composite of all those things. Not knowing exactly what went wrong is really painful. That’s why I’ve chose to work freelance now, and make a living off my drawing skills alone. If I end up going hungry, I’ll know the fault was my own; likewise, if there’s a problem, I’ll know I was probably cause of it. Everything is clearer this way. It’s so refreshing to be working this way now, it feels really good.

—What are your future goals, now that you’re freelance?

Yasuda: First is to get in the black, financially. I had to buy a lot of things to start my own business like this, it really set me back.

—What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?

Yasuda: I couldn’t tell you that right now, but one thing I’d like to do is get back to being focused on my art, improving my fundamentals. I’ve sort of gotten away from that. When it comes to the game industry, I’m the guy who made Street Fighter II, a fact which swelled my pride. But now that I’m working independently like this, it’s like going back to square one as an illustrator. If I were a normal illustrator I’d long since have built a portfolio and a whole body of work to share, but I’ve got nothing like that. So it’s tough right now. At this moment I’m just focused on creating some great work and getting my finances back on track.

—The journey goes on.

Yasuda: Yeah, but you know—this is maybe the happiest or second happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I really mean that!