Yoji Ishii is one of the luminaries of Sega history, acting as a director and designer on early arcade titles like Flicky and Fantasy Zone before moving into a producer role for titles like Ristar, Panzer Dragoon, and more. In this interview he gives a detailed account of how Fantasy Zone was created. He also offers a truly unique view of Sega in the mid-80s: years before the Megadrive, still struggling to compete in the arcade market.

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Fantasy Zone – 2014 Developer Interview

with designer/director Yoji Ishii, featured in STG Gameside #10

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Yoji Ishii, holding the
Fantasy Zone arcade flyer.

—How were the plans for Fantasy Zone born?

Ishii: Konami had just come out with Gradius, which was an explosive hit. My boss told me to “make us a Gradius Killer!” At the time, Sega didn’t have any strong STGs. We had released Hang-On not long before, so we had taikan1 arcade games, but not STGs. No doubt my boss saw the hits that other companies were putting out, and wanted to make a rival title.

—Well, Star Jacker was well-liked by Sega fans, but I guess it wasn’t a major hit. Fantasy Zone used Sega’s new system 16 hardware, which was very powerful for its time. People were very impressed by what it could do.

Ishii: Even though it was new, I believe it still had a limit of 128 sprites? I remember trying to think of how we could make something that could compete, graphically, with other game companies despite these technological hurdles.

—Would you say that one side of game design is working backwards from the hardware capabilities like that?

Ishii: As a director you try to use the hardware to its fullest, and it was a part of my planning process too. For example, when Opa-Opa dies and explodes in a poof of fireworks, for that we found a way to double the sprite limitation from 128 to 256. Also, with this hardware, there was a limit to the number of sprites you could have in any horizontal row, so we couldn’t do any weapons like the Gradius laser (which extends in one straight line all the way to the edge of the screen). The workaround we came up with for our lasers was to use the hardware background layers and make the laser thicker. That meant we couldn’t have diagonal or reflecting lasers, though. Given those limitations, we did our best to make something that, to a player, would still look cool.

—Was the pastel color pallette of Fantasy Zone a reaction to the metallic world of Gradius?

Ishii: In the beginning, my boss told me to make a space-themed STG to rival Gradius. All the backgrounds were supposed to be in outer space, with starfields, etc. But I doubted whether players would be interested in a mere knockoff, and personally, as a creator, I wanted to make something more colorful and showy. So I told our designers to use pastel colors for a bright, cheerful presentation.

—Yeah, most of the STGs up to then had a cold, metallic image.

Ishii: Definitely. You had stuff like Xevious which had come out three years before. I wanted to make something bright, with a pop sensibility.

—Where did Opa-Opa’s name came from?

Ishii: In Brazil when people are excited they yell out “Oopa!” One of my original ideas for Fantasy Zone was that it would all be themed around samba music. I told the other developers that the backgrounds, the music—everything should have a flashy pop style. I originally wanted the title to be “Opa-Opa” too, but due to various circumstances we changed it to Fantasy Zone.

—By making a “pop game” were you also trying to attract female players, who Sega didn’t have a strong connection with?

Ishii: We were, but contrary to its appearance, Fantasy Zone ended up being a very hard game, so I’m not sure how that worked out!

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An advertisement for miniatures of several of
Sega’s famous taikan—”body sensation”—arcade cabinets.

—Almost all horizontal STGs have forced scrolling from left to right. In games like Defender, however, the player controls the scrolling, the screen loops infinitely, and there are fixed targets. Why did you choose this style for Fantasy Zone?

Ishii: My feeling was that if I was going to make a game, I might as well make something that hadn’t been done before. I didn’t want to make a game that people would just call an extension of Gradius; I wanted to do something completely new. I also thought it was a little boring to always have the screen advance in one direction. On top of that I had just made Flicky, another game that has free scrolling. Basically, I just like that style. I like how you can rush forward, then turn around really quick and retreat if you need to.

—There’s some intertia in Flicky too, and it feels like you’re swinging the screen left and right. I can see the resemblance.

Ishii: The games also share certain hardware restrictions concerning the size of the stages. With Flicky, we challenged ourselves to make the stages feel like wide, expansive spaces despite the tiny memory available. I also loved Defender, which you mentioned a moment ago. And there was this Western-made game called Drol that I liked, which also had free left-right scrolling.

—In Fantasy Zone, you destroy 10 enemy bases to make the boss appear. How did you come up with this system?

Ishii: I wasn’t a particularly good STG player. I hadn’t played them that much. I preferred games like Flicky where you have to collect all the birds, or dot-eater games like Pac-Man. To me, the 10 bases in Fantasy Zone were like the dots you have to eat in Pac-Man. It’s like you’re going through the stage “collecting” the bases.

—The colorful world of Fantasy Zone has 8 stages. Were those stages inspired by anything?

Ishii: Not particularly. I was thinking to create something entirely new, and that meant starting from zero. The final scene, however, when you encounter your Father, was inspired by movies: we were trying to parody Star Wars.

—Fantasy Zone’s shop system also made a big impact on players. Buying parts to power-up your ship… was this also done in response to Gradius?

Ishii: Naturally, we started from the premise that this would be a STG with a power-up system. But something felt unnatural to me about powering-up just by touching a power-up. I thought it made more sense to have power-ups be like taking your car into an auto shop for a tune-up, and equipping it with new parts.

Cars are one of my hobbies—I like cars and motorcycles, actually. I like the idea of buying new parts and gradually improve your vehicle. And to buy parts, you need money. For those reasons I added the shop.

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Opa-opa chases after those damn coins. Art by pixiv user shimusu.

—The first Dragon Quest came out that year (1986), so “shopping” in games was still a novel thing.

Ishii: Nowadays buying things in games is commonplace, but at the time it was practically brand new.

—It was definitely the very first shop in a STG, and also, therefore, the very first “STG Economy”! Was it difficult finding the right prices for the items and upgrades?

Ishii: From the beginning I knew the prices should get more and more expensive as the game goes on, otherwise you’d have too much money and the difficulty level would get all screwy. But I also thought users would get mad if I did that: “what the hell, why is this so expensive now?!” Bad players wouldn’t be able to buy anything then, either. We ended up adding a lot of different purchase options. I think it came out well.

—The existence of money in the game brings out a special side of Opa-Opa’s character, too. I can’t think of another example where the main character chases around after coins like that.

Ishii: Right, he gets desperate for that cash! If you don’t collect money, you can’t buy parts.

—When you kill bosses you don’t get the money automatically, but have to chase it down as it scatters around the screen. Was that supposed to be funny, like “look at Opa-Opa chase all that money!” ?

Ishii: Yeah, it was. I thought players would feel chagrined if he missed some coins, and that feeling would fire them up for the next stage.

—How did you decide on the different items that would be available in the shop?

Ishii: Having to manually keep tapping shot is another thing I’m not very good at in STGs. Around that time, the “16 shots in 1 second” Hudson challenge was popular. I sucked at that, so I added weapons like the laser and 7-way shot for players with slow fingers like me. I wanted to tell players “there’s more to games than quickly tapping buttons.”

—The Smart Bomb which destroyed everything on-screen was another element distinguishing Fantasy Zone from other auto-fire STGs.

Ishii: That one takes a lot of money to buy. The 16 ton Heavy Bomb is a favorite of mine.

—Everyone loves that one! What was the idea behind it, by the way?

Ishii: “16 tons” was originally an oldies song by American singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. It’s also a recurring gag in Monty Python, where a weight with the words “16 tons” falls down on people. That was the image I had for the item in Fantasy Zone.

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The 16 ton Heavy Bomb, a fan favorite. Art by pixiv user aaru.

—Later games that followed the lead of Fantasy Zone placed their shops in a fixed location; but why was yours was floating from a balloon?

Ishii: There probably was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it. It’s probably because it would be too easy if the shop were in a fixed location.

—The bosses in Fantasy Zone are really nicely done.

Ishii: Yeah, they are. Throughout the development I kept telling the team two things: first, to make this a STG that anyone could clear. And second was “this is a boss game.” I wanted the game to be balanced such that anyone could beat the 10 bases, but the real challenge lies in fighting all the different bosses. Since beating the bosses was the fun thing about Fantasy Zone, I called it a “boss game.” I too am really proud of how many cool bosses there are.

—Yeah, including the last boss, there are 8 bosses, and they all have different attack patterns and ways to beat them. Did you figure out the stages first, and then extrapolate from there to design each boss’ features?

Ishii: That’s how we did it. First we designed the statges, and then thought up a boss to match it. Making the bosses also gave us some ideas for shop items, like “this weapon would work well on this boss.”

—So that explains why each boss has a weapon that works particularly well on them. Crabunga, for example, is a tough enemy, but you can decimate him with just three smart bombs.

Ishii: I had wondered if players would figure that out. If you use tricks like that, it’s an easy clear.

An old Fantasy Zone superplay.

—Then there’s the music of Fantasy Zone. I like the way the music synchronizes with the visuals after you defeat a boss, and the way it speeds up when you’re almost out of time.

Ishii: The music was done by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, so of course it was excellent! I told him to do what he liked, but to give it a samba feel. He then churned out song after song for it—his energy back then was something else. He was also working on Outrun at the same time, and he was just as prolific in that game.

—In the overseas version of Fantasy Zone, the stage 5 song was updated with more melody lines. I’ve heard that was done because you ran out of time with the Japanese release, so you added it for the overseas one. Was the development period for Fantasy Zone very short?

Ishii: I don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was made in about 6 months. Before Fantasy Zone, there was another space-themed STG being developed at Sega, but the whole thing fizzled out. That one looked much more like Gradius actually. After that game failed the scheduling became tight, and management instructed us to finish our game quickly.

—Were you involved in that other game?

Ishii: I was not.

—By the way, in the opening of Space Harrier it says “Welcome to the fantasy zone.” Was that intended to link the two worlds of Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone?

Ishii: Space Harrier was made by the same department at Sega, but other than that, there was no direct connection. I did get to watch them as they were developing it, though.

—The atmosphere of both games feels similar, but was that something you were conscious of?

Ishii: Not at all.

—Fantasy Zone is a game rich in names and descriptions, but are there any secrets you can tell us about the backstory or setting?

Ishii: It was a long time ago, so there’s a lot I don’t remember. We did embed a lot of meaning in those names but I can’t recall the details now. The date “B.G 1422” had some deep meaning, I think… ok, here’s one I can remember. You know the Menons from Planet Menon, right? I’ve never told anyone this, but “Menon” is a combination of “Mebius” and “Xenon”. Why did I do that? Because when you combine them to “Menon”, the leftover characters spell Xevious!

—I see! Star Force was another game then that payed homage to Xevious, with its separate ground and air targets. It’s interesting how Fantasy Zone was developed as a game chasing after the success of other developers, but after it was released, other developers tried to imitate Fantasy Zone! I think the huge bosses in Fantasy Zone that moved all around had a big influence on those later games.

Ishii: Yeah, I had wanted to try making huge bosses. With Sega’s previous hardware, you couldn’t really move big sprites around the screen much.

—Sega’s games became much better visually after the adoption of the system 16 hardware.

Ishii: That’s true. I think the hardware improved and the graphics got better after Fantasy Zone, too.

—Was the boss rush in stage 8 meant to highlight those huge bosses, an encore of sorts? Like, “look how much effort went into these bosses!”

Ishii: That I don’t remember too clearly. I do remember thinking it would be a waste to not use them again, since we had spent so much time on them. We knew the final boss would be Opa-Opa’s father, but just beating him alone wouldn’t be too satisfying, so we talked about doing a boss rush as a kind of “opening fight.” I believe there had been boss rush games before, but they weren’t Sega games.

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Xevious and Gradius, perhaps the two most popular STGs of
all-time in Japan, and a major influence on most successive games.

—True, but undoubtedly Fantasy Zone is the game that popularized the idea of a “boss rush” for players. I remember that you didn’t get any coins from those boss fights either.

Ishii: By not giving them any more money to use, I was trying to make players use their heads to get through that part. In retrospect I probably could have done something different. But I had no idea there would be players who could clear multiple loops. Their skill is amazing.

—Just as some weapons make the boss fights easy, their are also weapons that make beating the stages and bases a breeze. The Fire Bomb, for instance… there’s one stage where you can fire it, then chase it across the whole stage, destroying every base in the process!

Ishii: Yeah, we intentionally included some easy parts in Fantasy Zone too.

—STGs are known for having ever-increasing difficulty, but I see you also created some “breather” stages too.

Ishii: We did. In some of the later rounds the bases are easy to clear, and there’s easy bosses too.

—For IDA-2, if you have the jet engine, he’s a cinch.

Ishii: This is something I thought of during this interview today, but Fantasy Zone is now almost 30 years old. Just being able to talk about it like this makes me very happy. I’m very happy Sega was able to port it to so many different systems, too.

—The Sega Mark III (Master System) in particular was a very underpowered system, and I understand it was a huge challenge to port.

Ishii: At that time I wasn’t working in the console department, but I did meet and talk with the team, and yeah, it looked really difficult. They would ask me things like “we can’t do this boss on the hardware, would one like this be ok instead?” I believe I told them they should do whatever they wanted.

—It sounds like all the porting teams had a lot of spirit, but also a lot of respect for the original.

Ishii: I also saw a lot of determination to make something that surpassed the original (at least, at first).

—I think Sunsoft had that mentality when they made Super Fantasy Zone.

Ishii: I think it’s cool that they thought their version was better. It’s cool to see rivals appear like that.

—Yeah, you saw it not only in the bosses, but in the really good music too. It was like a challenge to see how they could best the system 16 hardware despite their limited resources. I was surprised to see Fantasy Zone released on Sega’s rival console, the Famicom, too. There were versions for the MSX, PC Engine, and X68000 too… pretty much every console in Japan.

Ishii: You guys know more than me about Fantasy Zone! (laughs)

—(looks at arcade instruction card brought by Ishii) Wow, that’s in pristine condition for its age!

Ishii: This part here (points to the explanation for the different engines) made Sega angry. The Rocket Engine makes your ship impossibly fast, and it was a kind of joke, but we didn’t say that on the instructions. We didn’t realize that until after everything was printed and released, and man, Sega was furious. There were a lot of very serious people at Sega then.

—That’s one of the unique things about arcade games: no manual, just a single sheet of instructions.

Ishii: That was a golden age of arcade games for Sega. It was such a fun time. The entire team, designers, sound, everyone really enjoyed themselves making those games.

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The Fantasy Zone instruction sheet that angered Sega management.
The text beneath the Rocket Engine says “makes you go suuuper fast”.

—Since you love cars, Ishii, were you involved in any of Sega’s driving games?

Ishii: Yeah, I was involved in Outrun. After making Fantasy Zone I moved into management, though, so I did less directing then.

—So Fantasy Zone was the final arcade game you were directly involved with then?

Ishii: My role afterwards was more like a producer. Sega had a lot going on then. Hang-On was our first taikan arcade game; before that we didn’t have any good racing games either. It was also made as a “rival” title to the popularity of Namco’s Pole Position. Flicky, too, was a response to Namco’s Mappy. “We need to deliver a knockout punch to Mappy!” —management was giving us instructions like that. They were like that with Xevious too, really gnashing their teeth at its success. I also wondered myself why we weren’t putting out hits like that.

—But with Flicky you didn’t make something exactly like Mappy—you approached the idea from a different angle.

Ishii: The thing I didn’t like about Mappy was that you would die if you fell through the floors. I started with the design premise of “falling does not kill you”, and came up with the idea of a bird as the main character. That kind of thinking is pretty much how I made all my games.

—What an exciting time. Fireworks were going off everywhere in the industry, and companies were trying to outmanuever each other like that.

Ishii: It was fun. But I think very few people probably saw Fantasy Zone and thought it was designed to rival Gradius. Likewise, I don’t think people realized Flicky was born of Mappy, either.

—I like the piopio baby birds with the sunglasses in Flicky, they’re little rascals.

Ishii: They don’t listen to you, do they!

—I feel like your games all have good characters.

Ishii: I wanted to do stuff that would surprise people and make them go “Huh?” Like the fact that Opa-Opa isn’t a mech, but a living organism.

—Fantasy Zone was super popular in Japan, but I understand it had an uphill battle overseas.

Ishii: Maybe it’s because STG itself never really took hold in America. Sega’s later action games like Shinobi and Altered Beast really took off there, though.

—After you made Fantasy Zone, what were you impressions of other companies’ sidescroller STGs?

Ishii: I thought R-Type was amazing and very good. Twinbee was really good too, and you know I like that kind of pop stuff.

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Opa-Opa, 3D-printed version by pixiv user terapon.

—After Fantasy Zone things seemed to get more stable for Sega.

Ishii: I think Sega’s individuality really started coming out then. Hang-on, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and then After Burner. People called that game “Top Gun” in the US. It was extremely popular overseas.

—You formed the game development company Artoon after leaving Sega. You were President of AQ Interactive for a time, and you recently founded Arzest. As someone whose entire life has been dedicated to game development, what do you feel is the most important thing for a game to have?

Ishii: There’s definitely a lot of things, hmmm. I guess the main thing is knowing what makes the player happy. More than just making the game you personally want, I think it’s important that developers make games that match what people living now find fun. This is my personal belief, but I’m also always telling my employees that too…

—As you said, putting players first is one important perspective, but it’s also balanced by what you said earlier, about not doing the same thing as other developers with your games.

Ishii: Yeah, it was true then and now: if you just try to imitate and follow others, the results won’t be interesting. If you look around at other creators and just ask, “what’s popular now?”, it’s very easy to end up copying them. As game designers, I think we have to do better than that. I’m always saying that at our company, but I admit it’s not something we always achieve. It’s not easy.

—Since the games that are selling now are presumably what gamers want, it takes courage to step away from that and do something different.

Ishii: It does, but every game that has been successful has done just that. I think that’s how Puzzle & Dragons succeeded too, and recently there’s Monster Strike.

—Right. Big hits don’t just follow marketing trends that show what users “objectively” want; the creators have to present a new kind of fun to players.

Ishii: I think so. Market research is extremely important for telling you what kind of things are popular right now. But creators must think a step or two beyond the prevailing trends and ask what will be popular, and create that. After all, what’s popular today will seem old and outdated in a mere 6-12 months.

—Sega in the late 80s seemed to follow that philosophy: they weren’t just making what players were asking for. Instead they were leading players, and after playing a Sega game you felt like “oh, I had wanted to play something like this!” It was impressive.

Ishii: That positive culture at Sega in the 80s is owed to then-President Hayao Nakayama. He constantly told us, “Be the first: make something the world has never seen before.” The whole staff tried to follow that philosophy.

—And Sega seemed to be in a good position, as a company, to actually do that.

Ishii: Yeah. Take something like the R360 cabinet… there’s no way Sega woud take a risk like that in today’s climate. Everyone wanted to make something like that machine, but I couldn’t believe Sega actually did it. It was just amazing, the way the machine would spin in 360 degrees when you got hit. In that era of gaming, you could make crazy things like that.

—You can see that in the huge Galaxy Force machine which came out before the R360, too. It feels like the pure desire of “I want to make this” had priority over budget and cost.

Ishii: Yeah. It was like, if we make this, it’s sure to be amazing! Each developer made cabinets with their own individual style too: Taito, Namco, Konami, Capcom. The competition was very fun.

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The amazing R360, a pinnacle of Sega’s taikan cabinet design.

—Were you ever inspired by what you saw from other companies at exhibitions like the AM Show?

Ishii: Every time! I can’t describe how fun and exciting it was, going to all the various exhibitions where companies showed their new games. Sometimes I’d think, “damn, they beat us to it!”, and other times “Hey, we can use this!”

—It also wasn’t possible to predict what the games would be like, since game companies made their own unique hardware back then.

Ishii: That’s very true. I was often amazed, “wow, look what’s possible now!”

—By the way, when you were developing games, if you got stuck, did you have any special techniques to get out of that rut?

Ishii: Not especially. I used to always tell myself, “there are an infinite number of ideas inside your head.” When the lead programmer would come to me and ask “What shall we do for the next boss?”, if I hadn’t thought about it yet, I would first run away. (laughs) But by the next day I’d always have some ideas. I only needed one night. I would tell myself, “you’ll never get stuck.” After all, if you think the opposite, that you will fail, then it’s a foregone conclusion that you will.

—I see. And in game development, there is no single fixed “right way” to do something.

Ishii: Exactly. No matter what direction you go in, there’s always something interesting to be found. Every path has the possibility of success.