Irem Arcade Games – 1989 Developer Interview
originally featured in Gamest #30
Tetsuo Nakano – Development Chief / Executive Director
Kozo Okada – Planning Development Section Chief
Michiru Kawai – Planning Section Chief
Kanae Saeda – Sales
Masato Ishizaki – Sound/Composer
—I’ve heard that Irem creates massive, detailed planning documents for their games. Is that true?
Saeda: Well, the one on the table here today is R-Type’s planning binder, and as you can see, it’s about as thick as a phone book. When you consider that we’ll often include things that never make it into the game, they can actually get even bigger.
—Why do you create such exhaustive planning docs?
Ishizaki: I think we all have ideas in our heads about what would make a cool game. However, when it comes to game development, to ensure that our ideas survive the translation into software form—which is a very digital medium—we create these detailed planning documents. This style of planning is an Irem tradition.
Kawai: I believe we were doing it this way even back when I was first hired.
Okada: Our programmers and designers are divided into different teams, so planning documents like this are important as a means of communication for them, too. If our games were designed and programmed by the same person, I imagine we wouldn’t need so much detail.
—What do you feel are some of the advantages of this approach to game design?
Ishizaki: By writing everything down, I think it allows you to see your ideas with a certain degree of objectivity. When an idea first pops in your head it’s easy to be very passionate about it: “this would make for an awesome game!” Writing everything out gives you a chance to see your idea from a more cool, detached perspective.
Clockwise from top left: Michiru Kawai, Tetsuo Nakano, Kozo Okada, and Masato Ishizaki.
Kawai: The critical importance of the planning documents is revealed whenever there’s a problem in the development. Then they serve a vital role as a mediator between the programming and planning groups.
Things never go quite exactly as the planners imagined, you see. Problems will crop up, or things just won’t work the way you want. In those moments, if you’ve made a thorough, solid planning binder in advance, you can quickly refer back to it and see, for example, how the characters and enemies are supposed to behave. It also eases the burden on the programmers, who don’t have to puzzle over what’s wrong by themselves; the planners can often figure out the source of the problem and fix it themselves.
—It does sound like it’s an incredible amount of work though, to make these planning documents this way.
Ishizaki: Yeah, it is. It requires a lot of patience and endurance.
Nakano: It’s works for us because we love what we do. If we didn’t have that passion for our work, I think writing things out in this much detail would be very challenging. But that very passion is why we give such esteem to the designers’ intentions during the planning documentation stage.
Okada: It takes that feeling of satisfaction when the game is done to the next level. When I see the finished product we’ve designed out there in the wild, at the game center with everyone gathered around and excitedly playing it, I just can’t describe how good that feels. It becomes the power that fuels our next game.
—Compared to other developers, I feel like Irem’s developments take an especially long time. Because of that length, I wonder: does it ever happen that your ideas end up being dated, or you’re behind the curve of the current fashions in gaming?
Nakano: Well, overly simplistic ideas are bad to begin with. If you just set out to imitate someone else, for instance, you’ll always be “behind the times”—and all the moreso if your developments take a long time to complete. Whenever a new good shooting game comes out, it does seem like other companies rush to release their own knock-off, just changing the sprites and backgrounds but otherwise having the exact same gameplay.
We take the opposite approach at Irem, and I think many of our games are unique and individualistic. The fundamental gameplay of our shooting games is different from other companies too, I think. That’s why we don’t worry too much about our games taking a little longer to come out.
—Your planners make a point of not imitating other games, then?
Ishizaki: Yeah, that’s something we absolutely avoid. When we’re first making our game, we start from our ideas. Even when making a shooting game, although many of us love games like Xevious, when we’re writing the planning documents we rely primarily on our own ideas, which is what gives our games that streak of personality.
Spartan X (Kung Fu), one of Irem’s early and innovative hits. An important entry in the lineage of fighting games; designer Takashi Nishiyama later joined Capcom to make Street Fighter.
Nakano: We’ve got a lot of unique “characters” on our planning staff, you see.
—What are some of those personality quirks, and how are they reflected in Irem’s games?
Ishizaki: Let’s see, well, one example… the guy who planned Image Fight, he’s a very good cook. (laughs)
Nakano: He’s extremely meticulous. His planning documents are super detailed.
—Ah, I can see that somehow.
Ishizaki: The guy who made Ninja Spirit is also very particular about his vision. Normally our planning documents include information about the movements and attacks of the player character and enemies. You know, what they can do, things like that. But the Ninja Spirit planner, he goes so far as to write down every character’s personality and personal background info. This character likes to keep his hair tied back, this woman should have these proportions, just so many little details.
Nakano: Another shining example of his passion, I think, is in the ending of Ninja Spirit. We were already pretty much at the limit of free memory, but he was totally insistent on having that ending.
Ishizaki: I’m not sure at what point he came up with the whole turning into a wolf thing, but having backstory like that is very helpful for developing other ideas, so I think it’s a good thing.
Kawai: For the wolf idea, I believe he originally wanted the player to be able to transform into a wolf and fight. Ultimately there were too many problems—gameplay-wise, and memory—so it got reduced to just that ending transformation scene.
Okada: When someone on our team is really fired up about an idea for a game, the first thing they have to do is convince the rest of us. At that moment it’s critical to be able to clearly explain the game’s sales appeal, and we all intuitively understand that if that’s not clear, the whole thing will be a non-starter. And I think that’s why our games have such a strong personality.
Nakano: We won’t develop a game if it has no sales appeal. Starting off with a story, then developing a cast of characters, and creating flashy visuals may be a fine way to go about crafting a game, but our approach at Irem is different.
—What was the “selling point” for Ninja Spirit?
Nakano: It was the ability to freely select your weapons, and play with the weapon you like.
—It feels like if you don’t select the right weapon for the stage though, it can be pretty difficult.
Kawai: In the beginning of the development, we thought we’d have a really wide range of weapons for the player, and all of them would be useable throughout the game. But due to memory limitations and other problems, the weapons kind of got divided into specific use cases.
Originally, transforming into a wolf was going to be a main combat mechanic in Ninja Spirit.
—How about Image Fight? What was its appeal?
Nakano: First was being able to dodge in a diagonal direction while shooting. Another was being able to freely change your ship speed. In other words, the initial inspiration for Image Fight fit on a single piece of paper. And from there we started working on it.
—I wanted to ask about the ending of Image Fight, actually…
Ishizaki: Your ship self-destructs in the final boss fight. The last scene shows a rescue ship coming to get you.
—So that explosion at the end was your own ship blowing itself up? Is that what was meant by “attack” in the ending REPORT text?
—In the second loops he doesn’t get there in time, and your ship explodes for good.
Okada: It’s a pretty hardcore ending, right? Our earlier games, including R-Type and Ninja Spirit, both had more positive endings where all your companions join you at the end, so the designers probably wanted to do something different.
Nakano: I think they were going for that cinematic “to be continued” feeling… part 1 is over, but there’s more to come! Aaaand in fact, we at Irem are planning to release more amazing games this year. If you can wait just a bit longer they should be released before too long. Please look forward to them!
Part 2 – Irem President Yoshiyuki Takashima
—This is your third year as President of Irem. What was the first game made under your leadership?
Takashima: Actually, it was a game that never ended up coming out. (laughs) At that time we had just moved begun making Famicom games. It was a period of great power and energy for us as a company: the Famicom port of Spartan X had been a big hit, and Lode Runner II was doing well in the arcades. So even though our first game under my leadership ended up being a failure, I wasn’t personally too affected by it.
—In this 3 year period, what has been Irem’s biggest hit?
Takashima: R-Type, I think. If you go by sales volume…
—Did you think it would be a hit?
Takashima: I always think they’re going to be a hit, that’s why we release them. (laughs) Well, I guess that when we release a game in a new genre that no one has ever seen, it’s more about business inuition. Before our company had become Irem, we released Spartan X, and no one had ever seen or made a fighting game with visuals like that. R-Type was a year and half ago, but there we were pushing the graphics technology, to be able to put those striking huge sprites on-screen.
President Yoshiyuki Takashima.
—It seems you sensed it would become a hit. How long did R-Type take to develop?
Takashima: A year and a half. It was originally being made as an entirely different game. But midway through, the developers had focused so much on their own particular attachments, and it those ballooned into an entirely different game. The planner for R-Type had experience making thoughtful, smart action games, but this was his first time working on a real shooting game. The release of Gradius is what sparked us to start planning a shooting game, which puts the start of R-Type about 3 years back. And it was a completely different game that we were making for the first half a year. Then that main thread petered out, and the “side thread” that became R-Type took over.
—Do the higher-ups at Irem instruct the developers what kind of games to make?
Takashima: No, we don’t micromanage like that. We give them the freedom to do what they want. We do have them pursue what players are seeking though. And it’s not to say we never give any instructions at all. If some plans come across our desk for a shooting game they want to make, for instance, we’ll give advice about what kind of shooting game it should be, and other very basic things. It’s because we don’t want to be making the same games as other companies, you see…
—And I imagine your developments would have much more vague, undirected beginnings if you simply set out to copy someone.
Takashima: The thing is, if you don’t communicate with your development team early, you won’t know what their inspiration was. That’s why during the planning phase we will hold your typical corporate “product planning meeting”, where the devs’ initial inspiration gets taken up and turned into the official game design theme.
—And doing it this way, as management you aren’t giving them specific instructions about what games to make. I see.
Takashima: If we did told them what to make, and it turned out poorly, then what would happen, I suspect, is that the people who made the game wouldn’t take responsibility for it. It would be like, “hey, we were just following orders from above…” On the other hand, if everyone decides together what they want to make, then everyone will put their full efforts into it. We all take responsibility for our work together—that’s our motto.
I think I’d need to be a specialist myself if I were to give advice to the team. I always say, put the number one specialist in the right place and let him do his thing. As for my role, I just go around and pester everyone from time to time. (laughs)
—Do you play games yourself?
Takashima: I played a lot, up to Lode Runner. But today’s games are so fast, they’re too hard for me I think. I spend more time watching others play these days. I often go watch our developers playing the game they’re working on, for instance. Sometimes when I’m there watching them, we’ll get to talking, and occasionally we get on the same wavelength, and there’s been times when they’ve incorporated some of my feedback and ideas into the game, even.
—Oh really? What would be an example?
Takashima: In Spartan X, for example, you know how when the little guy jumps he somersaults in midair? That was my suggestion. At first he just jumped normally, but I have a background in gymnastics, so I suggested this would work better mechanically.
The ending of Image Fight mentioned above. One wonders how many gamers back then saw this screen; although Takashima states here that Irem did not intentionally set out to make their games difficult, Image Fight is notoriously remembered as one of the hardest arcade shmups ever made.
—Ah, so that was your idea. Anything else.
Takashima: There’s been others but I’m afraid I can’t remember. (laughs) But yeah, that’s another way for me to get involved in the actual developments.
—By the way, has Irem always paid attention to the overseas market too?
Takashima: No, not at all. The reason why is that the Japanese video game market is the best. So we feel that if our games achieve recognition here in Japan, with some minor adjustments, they should do well in any market overseas, too.
Conversely, if we were an American company, we would certainly have our sights set on conquering the American market first and foremost, and would design our games towards that end.
—To change the subject a bit, I think Irem’s games are starting to get a reputation as high quality games made for hardcore game maniacs.
Takashima: Interesting. We don’t consciously set out to make our games in that image, but if our players are naturally feeling that way, well, it’s something I’m actually very grateful for.
However, I will say this. The people directly in charge of our developments believe that it’s important to let the planners pursue their passions, as I’ve mentioned, because it confers a vital creative energy to our games. But there’s a line: if the planners go too far in overindulging their personal interests, then other people won’t be able to relate to it, and won’t understand it. When it comes to game development, we’re always saying that you’ve got to make a game that both skilled and unskilled players can enjoy. If you don’t do that, then all you’re doing is massaging your own ego.
Also, we don’t try and make our games “for kids” or “for adults”. If we did that, it would hamper our creativity. Besides, a game that an adult finds fun, I think a child will naturally find fun too.
—Can you tell us about Irem’s future plans?
Takashima: In the short term, we’re continuing to work on tabletop arcade games. We released a 3D game recently, and we definitely haven’t given up on that technology either. We’re also investigating large-format taikan arcade cabinets too. Famicom and computer game development is also important, but for the present, we’ll be prioritizing arcade development, and pouring all of our efforts into that.