This collection of interviews chronicles the creation of the Super Famicom strategy-RPG Front Mission, a game published by Square in 1995 to critical acclaim and one that continues to receive sequels and followups in various genres to this day. Developed in partnership with Toshiro Tsuchida’s now-defunct studio G-Craft, the developers discuss the game’s hard sci-fi setting, the collaboration between G-Craft and Square, stepping outside of Square’s usual fantasy wheelhouse and the process of sanding the edges off an unabashedly hardcore game.

 

 

Front Mission – 1995 Developer Interviews

originally featured in the official guidebook

Shinji Hashimoto – Producer
Toshiro Tsuchida – Producer/Writer

—For this interview today, rather than go into the detailed mechanics of Front Mission, I’d like to ask some broader questions about how the game got started, and also hear any behind-the-scenes stories you might want to share. To start things off, why don’t you tell us what your roles were in the development.

Hashimoto: I was a producer, doing the typical work that job entails: start-up stuff, seeing that the game gets finished, and making sure it can be successful as a commercial product too.

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Shinji Hashimoto (1995). Currently serves as executive producer and brand manager of the Final Fantasy series at Square-Enix.

—Were you involved in the initial planning then?

Hashimoto: The project started with talks between Square and G-Craft.1 They were going well, but Square had always made games 100% in-house, so in that sense, they didn’t really have the know-how needed to coordinate work with outsiders. While we hashed out the planning documents with Square, my former company Cobra Team2 merged into a new entity, Solid, and we served as an intermediary between Square and G-Craft. By the time the Solid merger was complete, the planning document Square and Tsuchida were working on was beginning to take shape.

—How many years ago was that, then?

Hashimoto: The plans got finished around fall of 93.

—Who was it that initially pitched the idea for Front Mission, then? Square, or G-Craft?

Hashimoto: That was all Tsuchida.

Tsuchida: I had a planning document I’d made for a game called “Hundred Mission”, and through the introduction of a third-party I was able to show it to Square. That was the start. The plans weren’t very appealing though, and it had honestly been rough-going. “Sorry, no robots.” I kept being told that. (laughs) It was right after the bubble had broken, so everything was kind of slumped and frozen. “We’re sorry, but game development can no longer afford to be driven by the creators’ passion alone” — that was also something I heard a lot.

—I see. I thought there’d still be a lot of people out there wanting to play games with robots, though.

Tsuchida: Well, another problem was that it was difficult to say, on paper, how far we could take this idea for a robot game. Later we borrowed some development hardware and were given some time to create a prototype. It was at that point, when we were deciding where to go from here, that Hashimoto joined the project.

—So there was a real chance that Square might not have been the publisher for Front Mission, then.

Tsuchida: Except that no one besides Square would give it the time of day, so… (laughs) They were the ones who believed in our vision.

—Front Mission has quite a different quality from Squaresoft’s previous games. It’s not a fantasy game, and the genre is completely different. Did Square have concerns about that?

Hashimoto: I’d say opinions were mixed. Should Square really be outsourcing their developments…? This was a company that had created hit franchises like Final Fantasy, Romancing Saga, and Seiken Densetsu, so some people felt there was no need to use outsiders. But the two points that brought people around were, one, that Square’s previous work had all been in the fantasy genre, and two, that doing something new would actually be good stimulation for the staff at Square.

Square’s own staff participated in the development right alongside G-Craft, doing graphics, sound, and other work. For our part, if we’ve been given the opportunity to work on the game we want, we like to go at it aggressively. And for Square’s part, it can potentially get monotonous to go straight to the next sequel in their mainline series, so I think this experience was stimulating for their staff. My initial reaction, by the way, when I saw Tsuchida’s first planning document, was that usually a pitch like this wouldn’t fly. It was too radical. (laughs)

Tsuchida: (laughs)

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From the artbook Front Mission in Huffman, a look at Kow Yokoyama’s design process for one of the wanzers, from conception to illustration to the final 3D sculpture. (click for full) Yokoyama explains there: “This was inspired by Mission 2, a huge river running through a verdant jungle–the atmosphere, as you likely guessed, of Vietnam. The trees here were mostly made with commercial diorama modeling products, but some of the finer branches were actually weeds from my garden that I dried out.”

—Well then, turning to the development itself, let me see if I have this right: Tsuchida was responsible for the content of Front Mission, while Hashimoto, you reviewed and checked the final product…?

Tsuchida: He did more than that. Both Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hashimoto were involved from the beginning, and they both love robot stuff. Let’s do this! Let’s add this!—the world of Front Mission is the world the three of us wanted to explore, you see. So they both added a lot of ideas throughout the development. It was, in fact, very open… if one of us had a crazy idea, or were insistent about something, no one automatically said “no.” Instead we tried to adapt the idea so it would be palatable from a business or sales perspective. On stage 15, for example, there’s a fort, and the original idea was Hashimoto’s. The fortifications, the old colonel Kirkland who’s like a relic from the past, those were all his ideas.

Hashimoto: He’s holding the fort out of his own privately held convictions, but it turns out he was just being used. A lot of the ideas in Front Mission were done where Tsuchida would prepare the basic idea, and I’d help expand on it.

Tsuchida: Yeah. I was almost never asked to cut something, or go in a different direction. Hashimoto would always intervene with a good idea before it got to that point. One behind-the-scenes anecdote I have (hopefully it’s ok to say this now) involves the image of the human brain in the opening scene. I know most people wouldn’t be bothered, but there was a concern about putting an image like that in a product children would buy. However, speaking as a creator, if you have to distort your original vision too far, it’s all kind of pointless. And it was with that understanding that Hashimoto approved the project, thankfully.

—The cover illustration is pretty scary too, with that monkey glaring at you. (laughs)

Hashimoto: Yoshitaka Amano painted that right after he had returned from Bali. We originally planned to use the entire image for the cover packaging, but it was too imposing, so we only used the portion you see there.

Tsuchida: We also chose not to have the “Squaresoft” logo appear when you boot up the game. This was something the staff proposed, to help players feel immersed in the game’s world from the moment they flick the power on. The designers who created the storyboards also disliked verbose, text-heavy introductions, which was another reason.

Hashimoto: I even said to the staff, you know, we can put Square’s logo there like the other Final Fantasy games. They shot that down immediately though: “Absolutely not!” (laughs)

Tsuchida: I didn’t say that, just so you know. (laughs) As a producer Hashimoto was very good about listening to the developers like that.

Hashimoto: The staff actually went to the trouble of creating a sample movie, using a Macintosh program, to show me the opening. I thought, if these guys are going to this much trouble, you know, as a producer you want to do all you can to make sure it goes through.

—A lot of passion went into the entire project, it seems.

Hashimoto: Indeed. Thanks to things like that sample movie, though, it also made it easier to convince the higher-ups.

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The aforementioned Amano illustration of the Canyon Crow enjoying a meal. (click for full)

—Amano drew a lot of illustrations for Front Mission, it seems.

Hashimoto: In abundance, yeah. Partly because it was the first entry of a new series, but Amano, too, had a hard time coming up with visuals at first, so he kept drawing until we were all satisfied. For example, if we asked him to draw 10 characters, to him, that doesn’t mean 10 illustrations… it’s more like 30 or 40. He doesn’t stop until he’s satisfied, that’s his way.

—You managed to fit in some more relaxed imagery too, like the characters chilling in that commercial.

Hashimoto: That was my request, as the producer. Because Front Mission’s story is so dark and heavy—you know, with pictures of human brains and all—I felt it was important to have a few light-hearted, more cheerful images, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. You can see some of that in the commercial we aired. The other place is Amano’s illustrations… I told him I thought it would be good to have a couple images of the characters without his usual dark expressions and scowls. Amano said he was bad at those kind of drawings, but he did manage to create two for us nonetheless.

—What did they look like?

Hashimoto: Well, it was my idea, but I wrote out a little scenario with the Canyon Crow members having a meal. I checked with the G-Craft team to make sure it didn’t clash with the atmosphere too much, and Amano fleshed that out into an actual image.

—Yeah, now that I look at it more closely, you can see the thoughtfulness put into it. Keith’s standing there next to Natalie…

Tsuchida: And Lloyd is off in the corner, looking kind of bored.

Hashimoto: From that picture, you get the feeling Amano really liked J.J, Kong, and Pee-wee. Although he did tell me “I’m more into stylish characters, so drawing guys like Maury and Pee-wee isn’t my specialty.” (laughs)

—How did you end up asking Kow Yokoyama to do the 3D models?

Hashimoto: Square’s President Hironobu Sakaguchi is a big fan of plastic models. Since it was robots we were working with here, he said he wanted to try modeling them in real life. It seemed like a good opportunity to work with the famous Yokoyama. But yeah, I guess Sakaguchi’s motivation wasn’t exactly pure. (laughs) The real reason was that he wanted to have a Wanzer plastic model made.

When it comes to understanding the Wanzer as an actual weapon, Yokoyama had a clearer picture of that, compared with Amano. And since the game industry is moving onto the next generation of console hardware now, doing something in 3D like this seemed like a good way to draw people’s attention.

—I understand that the Wanzers were designed by different designers, but how many were working on it?

Tsuchida: One designer in particular did over half of them, but it was something where everyone shared their opinions on whether a particular Wanzer really fit the world of Front Mission—and in doing so, a kind of “Wanzerosophy” was gradually built up, so you could call it a team effort too. At the start of the project we actually talked about having distinct design concepts for each Wanzer designer, but that ended up not happening.

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Tsuchida and Hashimoto, fleeing from a pack of Clinton-class mobile weapons.

Front Mission – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Dengeki SFC magazine

Shinji Hashimoto – Producer
Toshiro Tsuchida – Producer/Writer

—Congratulations on finishing the Front Mission development. It feels like a very unusual game for Square—robots, strategy genre, and tons of English! (laughs) Can you tell us about that?

Hashimoto: When people think of Square, they inevitably think of traditional “middle ages fantasy”, but Square was thinking the time might be right for a game with a different approach, and along came Front Mission.

—The idea and plans for the game were not done by Square, then?

Tsuchida: Yeah, our company G-Craft created the planning documents, and brought that to Square. The whole world and plot of Front Mission is very “hardcore gamer” oriented, so I honestly never thought Square would approve, but to my amazement it all went smoothly. (laughs)

—Did Square make any specific requests for the game?

Hashimoto: At the beginning, we calculated and assumed that the game would only appeal to a certain subset of players, but on the advice of our supervisor Sakaguchi, we tried to expand that to a wider market by adding certain details here and there.

—The prototype ROM you sent our editors earlier is very different from the final game. Everything feels a lot clearer now.

Hashimoto: It was honestly way too technical and confusing—for the people who weren’t into that, it was completely incomprehensible. (laughs) Realizing that, we shifted gears and decided that the finished product would need to be something people could easily follow along to. Our stance as developers is to try and take advantage of any good idea that comes to us, you see, even if we’re in the middle of the development.

Tsuchida: It’s true, everyone is always excited to try new things. Our “parliamentary” style of development and willingness to adopt different ideas is one of our core strengths at G-Craft. (everyone nods)

—Could you give us your perspective, as creators, on the various characters of Front Mission?

Iwasaki: In terms of favorites, I like Hans. He’s the classic “cool side character” type, and as scenario writer, I feel a lot of attachment to him.

Tsuchida: I hope players take note of all the different dialogue and messages from the characters. Depending on who you deploy, and who survives, there’s a lot of variation in there.

Ooya: Speaking of the characters, as the programmer, inputting all that data was a challenge. In particular, I discovered a bunch of bugs a month before the deadline, and I was really worried about how the game would turn out then.

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From Front Mission’s eighth mission, the neon-drenched cityscape that programmer Ooya singled out as particularly striking.

—Tell us your favorite character to use, and your favorite scene, graphically.

Hashimoto: Lloyd, with long-range weapons. Graphically, I like the flashback scene with Karen in Mission 5.

Tsuchida: I like to use Sakata, with a short range weapons or a rifle. In terms of graphics I like Maury’s entrance scene in Mission 9.

Iwasaki: J.J., with melee. For graphics I like the steel bridge scene in stage 12.

Ooya: Paul. I like the neon cityscape in Mission 8.

—This is a game where you can easily fall in love with the characters, in many different senses. Who do you think will be some of the popular ones?

Hashimoto: We had 300 people playtest the game. They gave us good feedback on things we should (or shouldn’t) do. One thing that was surprising, was that despite being a strategy game—and a robot game no less—two things that women are said to not like, we got a good response from our female playtesters. The three most popular characters were Sakata, Driscoll, and Hans. Yan was also up there. Oh, and the Chrono Trigger playtesters gave us some nice praise too. (laughs)

Front Mission – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Famicom Tsuushin magazine

Toshiro Tsuchida – Producer (G-Craft)
Tetsuya Ooya – Main Programmer (G-Craft)
Hideo Iwasaki – Director (G-Craft)
Shinji Hashimoto – Executive Producer (Square)
Masanori Hara – Designer (G-Craft)
Tetsuya Takahashi – Development Manager (Square)

—Thank you all for coming today. To start things off, please introduce yourself and tell us what you did on the development.

Iwasaki: I was the director, so I managed the overall pace of the development, and I also checked the scenario and event data. The amount of data in Front Mission is huge, and of all the games I’ve worked on, it’s been the most difficult for that reason.

Ooya: I was the main programmer. I mainly worked on the set-up menu and the battle scenes.

Tsuchida: Hello, I’m Tsuchida, and I worked as producer this time.

Hashimoto: I’m Hashimoto—I did whatever they let me. (laughs) As executive producer, my job was to oversee the project from start to finish.

Hara: I was a graphics designers. I did the opening, the in-game visual scenes, things like that.

Takahashi: I mainly helped out on different assorted tasks. I drew all the faces, actually.

—The faces are kind of weird…

Everyone: (laughs)

Takahashi: We originally had different graphics for the faces. I really liked them myself, but they had to be changed… re-working Amano’s illustrations to fit the atmosphere we were going for was very difficult.

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Top (L-R): Hideo Iwasaki, Tetsuya Ooya, Toshiro Tsuchida; bottom (L-R): Masanori Hara, Tetsuya Takahashi, Shinji Hashimoto

—How does it feel now that the game is complete? Also, what points are you hoping players really notice?

Ooya: Well, I guess I want people to appreciate how nice and small the menu windows font is… we had to program in those letters and such all by hand, and I hope players notice.

—The font…?

Iwasaki: I’ll explain. (laughs) Normally on the SFC, the font letters are stored in 8×8 sprites—and they have to be displayed like that, so you can’t bunch them up real close (each letter has to occupy its own little 8×8 space). We had to do some programming to get around that limitation. Hopefully, in terms of visual impact, players notice it looks different from your average SFC game.

Ooya: Yeah, I’m proud of it. There’s some Russian (Cyrillic) text in there too, check it out.

—It’s kind of amazing that you put so much effort into the fonts, of all things! How about everyone else?

Tsuchida: One of our first concepts for what we wanted to do with Front Mission, was for the battle animations and Wanzer assemblage/equipment screens, to show all of that visually. Once it became a joint production with Square, we asked them to help out with the story and other parts, and as the development went along, their share of the work got larger and larger, I think. However, now that it’s all over, I think it was an excellent match-up: doing all your Wanzer customization while you’re immersed in the story makes it a lot better. I’m really satisfied with how that turned out.

—Does anyone else have anything to share, about parts of the development you feel especially proud of?

Hara: Hmmm… I would say the love aspects…

—You mean, romantic love?

Hara: Yeah. Like the complex relationship between Lloyd and Natalie. We tried to set it up with the hope that we’d get to make another Front Mission game, so we didn’t want to focus too heavily on just robots. We thought it would be cool for players to catch a glimpse of those human relationships, as it were.

—What do you think the overall theme(s) of Front Mission is then, Hara?

Hara: Love, baby.

Everyone: (laughs)

Iwasaki: As Hara said, there’s elements of Front Mission that we don’t directly depict, places where we thought being suggestive would be far more interesting. For example, when you see Sakata do something, we want you to think, “ah, I bet he’d say this right about now.” Or when Natalie is fighting, you might imagine what she’s thinking. I’ll be very happy if players get into the game that way.

—You created an awesome cinematic commercial for Front Mission. You filmed it in America, and borrowed an actual train for the shoot?

Hashimoto: Yeah. And the model Wanzer leg that’s on the table here, that was actually created especially for the commercial.

—Amazing!

Hashimoto: We had other Wanzer parts created too, by some of the effects people who worked on Terminator 2. Unfortunately they were destroyed after the filming.

Front Mission’s brief but impactful TVCM.

—Aww, what a waste. Is there anything you wish you could have added, or ideas you have for a sequel?

Ooya: There’s skills in Front Mission, but I’d like to have more next game. We originally had a counter punch mechanic too. Unfortunately due to our busy schedule and all, it got cut…

—And if you had unlimited time and money, how would you change or improve Front Mission?

Tsuchida: I wanted to have more movement and animation for the Wanzers. I think players will be very happy with what’s there, but as the creators, we had wanted to do more. I think the underlying gameplay system is very solid, but some of the visual presentation is a little lacking, and I wish we could have given it just a bit more attention.

Iwasaki: Personally, I feel like we did everything I was hoping for. Also, we didn’t have a designated head planner for this project. We assigned roles and tasks based on everyone’s input. So if we make a sequel, I hope we can do it in the same style, fielding everyone’s ideas.

Takahashi: This was our first experiment in working with an outside company. Letting that fresh air in proved invigorating for our internal team too, and I’m pleased with that.

—Finally, please tell us your favorite characters.

Iwasaki: Natalie, she has a really nice aura about her.

Ooya: Paul, I love the illustrations Amano did for him.

Hara: Pee-wee.

Tsuchida: Frederick, I like all his silly lines.

Hashimoto: My favorite character is Sakata, but I’m rooting for Lloyd.

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Several of Amano’s character illustrations, taken from the booklet of the official soundtrack CD. (click to expand)

Sakaguchi x Tsuchida – 1995 Developer Interview

originally featured in Famicom Tsuushin magazine

—Is the world of Front Mission meant to reflect on our current events today?

Tsuchida: No, I don’t think we really thought about it that deeply… or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s not something we’re capable of. (laughs) We did borrow some imagery from Vietnam war movies though, things we thought would make a nice accent or flavoring. But we aren’t trying to take a particular critical stance with regard to current events.

Sakaguchi: No one was trying to shine a light on current events. Certain geopolitical relationships were used for inspiration, though.

Tsuchida: For me, it’s more that I enjoy imagining what our near-future might look like. Robotics, like everything else, will eventually be used for weapons and armaments, so we tried to portray that in a plausible way. And thus, as with any weapon, humans will use them, and the abilities of the individual humans will determine how effective the weapons are.

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Hironobu Sakaguchi (1995)

—And the robots in Front Mission are controlled by a colorful cast of characters.

Tsuchida: That’s right. This was something that emerged from conversations with Sakaguchi, the idea that a game about robots would be ripe for a story about human drama. That was his idea, that in this game themed around war, we should try and include human drama as well.

Sakaguchi: I said, let’s not abandon or compromise on the tasteful, refined aesthetic that the G-Craft team has created, but let’s see if we can also include some human drama that would evoke the realism of war. In that sense, I think Front Mission ended up becoming a very mature, adult game.

—One thing I noticed about Front Mission are the mid-fight event scenes. How did those come about?

Tsuchida: The way I see it, strategy games really take place in “symbolic”, not realistic, worlds. We can’t really show the experience of an air strike, for instance… you have to use your imagination to an extent. That’s why it was very important, I think, to have RPG-style framing to help players visualize what’s happening leading up to, and during, the combat—hence all the events at different times.

Sakaguchi: By having the events occur within the missions, it also forces players to watch and engage with them. I think players get bored if it’s always the same pattern of “destroy enemies, watch cutscene, destroy enemies, watch cutscene.” The way we did it, players will have no idea when an event scene might come, and that element of unpredictability is very important, I think. We really poured our hearts into the different events. There’s so many, in fact, even I can’t remember them all. (laughs)

—The field map is rendered in isometric 3D, but is there an advantage to being at a higher or lower elevation?

Tsuchida: There is. Some weapons can’t be used at certain heights, tanks are faster on flat ground, all your basic strategy game stuff. In addition, we gave little hints before mission deployment, about what kind of terrain you’re facing, so strategy veterans should be pleased. Naturally there’s some new and surprising strategy mechanics in there too…

Sakaguchi: I mean, you get to build your own robots in Front Mission. If that’s not meaningfully reflected in the gameplay no one would be having fun. (laughs)

Tsuchida: We also tried to remove confusing or opaque stats. I didn’t want Front Mission to be something you have to read a strategy guide to understand, it should be simple. Instead of crunching stats and numbers, we tried to make it something where you could tell at a simple glance what was stronger or weaker.

Sakaguchi: In an RPG, you can quickly tell whether a character is tanky, whether they can wield a sword or not, and so forth. I think that kind of clarity has been missing from a lot of sci-fi games until now. That’s why, in Front Mission, rather than represent those strengths and weaknesses with abstract little numbers, we wanted players to quickly look and see, “ah, this armor type is probably good at defense, but it probably can’t mount this weapon.” You learn those things naturally, as a matter of course, as you create and equip your robot on-screen.

Tsuchida: You do level-up characters in Front Mission, but as the creators, what we really hope players feel while they’re constructing and upgrading their Wanzer, is an identification with the robots themselves, that this robot is their character.

—I understand Yoshitaka Amano did illustrations for Front Mission.

Sakaguchi: There might be some people who feel weird about Amano doing sci-fi character designs. (laughs) We asked Amano to draw the human characters, and Kou Yokoyama did the robots. Once he gets a solid image in his mind, Amano is the kind of artist who will keep drawing and drawing without any further instruction. He got really into this project, and even created some huge canvases for us. Some of his illustrations even included mechs, which really surprised us. In that sense, the Front Mission development had a certain verve to it, where people like Amano and Yokoyama got completely absorbed in the world and ended up being full, willing participants in its creation, not just hired hands.

To give you a hint of how many characters are in Front Mission, I believe Amano did 40 illustrations. (laughs)

Tsuchida: Wow, that’s extravagant, asking an artist like Amano to draw that much.

Sakaguchi: We’ve never asked him to draw that much in a Final Fantasy game. (laughs)

—Given the dramatic nature of Front Mission, I imagine you both most be very into movies.

Tsuchida: Yeah, I wouldn’t call myself a cinephile or anything, but I enjoy watching sci-fi movies, and Vietnam war movies. For Front Mission, I wanted to combine the entertainment quality of a blockbuster sci-fi movie with the realism of a Vietnam war film.

Sakaguchi: I wouldn’t call myself a movie buff either. (laughs) For me the key thing isn’t the medium, but whether there’s a core of human drama, where what’s happening reflects some conflict of the human heart. That creates drama. Characters play a big role in that, in video games too. It’s something all our games at Square have in common.

—I see. Well, do you have any final words for readers today?

Sakaguchi: I hope players can feel the passion and care that Tsuchida and the rest of the staff put into this game.

Tsuchida: I’m hoping it finds a wide audience. You can geek out on the robot customization aspect, or you can play through just to enjoy the story, it’s up to you.

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Just one of the many sculptures created by Kow Yokoyama; photos of these models were used as promotional materials and as the basis for certain still images within the game, and as a general reference for the game’s pixel art and animation patterns. This sculpture, however, was the last one Yokoyama created for Front Mission, and was his own personal imagining inspired by other scenes in the game: “The usual pattern of a Wanzer getting destroyed, with it’s limbs getting blown off and body exploded everywhere, is cool and all, but I also wanted to see an image like this one, of a Wanzer that had been shot down and toppled over. “