This 2014 interview, held to commemorate the game’s first-ever reissue, saw Game Freak’s Ken Sugimori and Junichi Masuda reminiscing about the making of their first game, the panel-flipping, arcade-style Famicom action game, Quinty (released overseas as Mendel Palace).

Of particular focus is Quinty’s roots as a genuine indie game, developed by a loose affiliation of unlicensed hobbyists using home-grown development tools, and how that early experience compares to the current indie game landscape.

(Translated by GSK)

Pulseman interview (1994, offsite)
Game Design feat. Tajiri (1996)
Pokemon interview (2000)

Quinty (Mendel Palace) – 2014 Developer Interview

originally published on Game Watch

Ken Sugimori (artist/character designer)
Junichi Masuda (composer/audio programmer)

—In commemoration of Quinty’s release on Wii U Virtual Console, we’d like to look back at the game and discuss how it was made, your memories from that period, etc.

Sugimori: I might have already forgotten everything (laughs). Lately, my memory hasn’t been great.

—First of all, please tell me which aspects of Quinty you were involved with.

Masuda: Back then, music was my main job. I was in charge of sound engineering in general, including inputting audio data, checking sound effects and so on.

Sugimori: When did you start working on Quinty… around the halfway point?

Masuda: Hmm… before the halfway point, for sure.

Sugimori: How much had we done?

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Ken Sugimori, co-founder, artist and character designer of Game Freak. (2014)

Masuda: When I first arrived, it was nowhere near complete. When I began my preparatory research, there were still placeholder Mario sprites running around the board.

Sugimori: Gotcha, so you were around when we barely had anything done.

—At that point, you were making your own development tools for Famicom, right?

Masuda: That’s right. We started development during the era of the Apple II, which possessed the same MOS 6502 processor as the Famicom, so I was using the Apple II to analyze Famicom software.

In the beginning, I was entering data using the Family Basic keyboard and experimenting with the characters that came with Family Basic… we did debugging with that Family Basic keyboard too, I think? We didn’t have anything resembling the dev tools available today.

—In other words, you were tinkering with the graphics in a crude manner and feeling your way around… “this is how to make the character move”, that sort of thing.

Sugimori: Right, as we didn’t yet have character editing tools. After I’d met Tajiri1, I remember going to a programmer friend’s house and showing him what we’d done and he was like, “Mario’s turning around!”

—You were already interested in games, but had you realized you wanted to make them before that point?

Masuda: The desire to make games was something I’d always had, since elementary school. I played games all the time, and my parents bought me a computer in high school which I used to make games—just simple little things, nothing worth mentioning. Of course, I also spent a lot of time in the arcades.

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Game Freak’s longtime composer, game director and producer Junichi Masuda (2014). For Quinty, he came up with melodies on the train to and from work, and he gave up on any melodies that he forgot during transit as he figured they were, well, forgettable.

—When you were handling the music for Quinty, didn’t you have a day job elsewhere?

Masuda: That’s correct, I was a programmer. I was enrolled in a computer graphics program at vocational school, where I also studied programming using UNIX.

After school, I got a job as a dispatch programmer for a temp agency, so during the day I’d work on in-house corporate programs and so on, and when I got home I’d write music for Quinty, and on the weekends I’d go over to visit Tajiri and pals, back before Game Freak was an official company, and drop off my data.

—Sugimori, what kind of work were you doing at that point?

Sugimori: Back then, I was an aspiring mangaka, so I was reeling off pitches to publishers. On the side, Tajiri and I had been producing an independent game magazine called “Game Freak”, and from there we began talking more and more about making games instead of magazines.

—By the way, when you began working on Quinty, how many people were involved?

Sugimori: Aside from Tajiri, Masuda and myself, there was another artist and two other programmers, so… 6 people, I think.

When we friends decided to make a game together, we asked ourselves “What are we going to make?”, and from there, one person submitted an idea for a game where the screen is divided into a 7×5 grid and, by assembling floor panels to create paths, you’d guide a character across the screen from right to left, trying to collect scoring items on the way to the goal.

We began turning that idea into a game, to the point where the programmer had something running using Mario graphics as placeholders, but then the person who came up with the idea disappeared midway through and Tajiri decided to overhaul the game.

Tajiri wasn’t particularly fond of the game as it was, so he decided to redesign it; even so, we’d made a certain amount of progress and starting from scratch would have meant throwing away all our work, so we came up with a new game using the pre-existing mechanics for sliding and flipping floor panels, and from there we were able to create Quinty.

—How much time did you spend making the game, all up?

Sugimori: In total, less than three years… closer to two, perhaps.

Masuda: From the placeholder Mario demo, it took about two and a half years, I want to say.

Sugimori: I think we spent a lot of time in the prototype phase, since the programmers were only able to work on it after-hours, so when Namco signed up as publisher and we were able to enter full production, we picked up the pace pretty quickly. We were all of the mindset that we had no option but to go all-out.

—That included pulling all-nighters, I’m sure.

Sugimori: We’d work through the night without sleeping.

Masuda: I’d buy cheap game cartridges, open them up, take out the ROMs, burn new ROMs with the latest Quinty data, solder them onto the PCB, reassemble the cartridge and then test the games that way. I’d go out and buy cheap games for this purpose, and there were games that included additional hardware like MMC and SD, so I’d source those and modify them to use as test hardware.

We had to modify all that hardware in order to construct a development environment, hence why the game took so long to make. Back then, Epson’s NEC98-compatible computers were in vogue, and we were doing something akin to parallel processing by linking two computers together, back before the concepts of networks were really established. We were probably still working with 5-inch floppy disks back then, too.

Because of those conditions, the programmers had it tough, and pulling off everything we wanted to do with Quinty was not easy. Actually, if you look at the upper-right edge of the screen, you’ll see something flickering… that’s due to those letters right at the top of the screen, and because different hardware revisions of the Famicom had slightly different performance, Nintendo warned us that displaying graphics right to the very edges of the screen might cause visible flicker.

We were using every inch of the screen to squeeze as much display power out of the Famicom as we could, to the extent that we went past what was permissible for commercial Famicom software, and I think Nintendo just barely let it slide.

A Mendel Palace speedrun recording in which some of the aforementioned graphical glitches can be seen; the exact nature and severity of the visual aberration differs depending on the play environment and is not always easy to notice, but the flickering along the upper edge of the screen and the garbage pixels along the upper-right corner are two such errors.

—At that point, even though you’d been drawing pictures and studying programming, you’d never worked on a game before, right?

Sugimori: Nope, this was my first time.

—Given that it was your first game, why do you think you ended up choosing to make something for Famicom?

Sugimori: In the very beginning, we wanted to make something for computers, but since we all loved arcade games and dreamed about making something for the game center someday, that was also something we discussed. Ultimately, though, the Famicom was the most realistic option.

There was a time when you had no choice but to play certain games at the arcade, but the Famicom allowed you to play games like, say, Xevious, at home. It really was a dream machine.

What’s more, a Famicom was a much more affordable entry-level purchase than a PC, and that accessibility really helped games become so widespread.

—During that time, the Famicom was massively popular. Was it a dream of yours to make something that would be played by lots of people?

Masuda: I don’t think I ever thought that way while we were making the game. We weren’t motivated by the idea of lots of people playing our game. How to sell the game, how to make the most profit… if I were thinking in those terms, I don’t think I’d be working as an indie. I feel like we simply made what we wanted to make.

—I thought that perhaps you’d aimed to share the fun of games far and wide, but first and foremost, you wanted to make the sort of game you’d like to play.

Sugimori: The Famicom let us make “a game like the ones we play at the game centers”. The personal computers of the time struggled with smooth character movement; there was no concept of “sprites” on computers in the manner that existed on game consoles, and the controllers also had issues. Ultimately, the Famicom was a great platform for gamers.

—So you met Tajiri through doujinshi?

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The cover to the very first issue of Game Freak magazine, which was hand-written and photocopied by Satoshi Tajiri. This issue was recently reprinted in Famitsu in its entirety in commemoration of Game Freak’s 30th anniversary; you can view scans of the original magazine here.

Sugimori: Oh, should I go over all that, too? (laughs)

You’re right, we’ve known each other through doujinshi since our student days, when we made independent magazines together. Once I graduated high school, I rented an apartment near Tajiri’s house that more or less served as the office for Game Freak magazine, and during those days when we were all hanging out, playing the Famicom games I bought or visiting arcades, I started getting the urge to make my own games.

Once I started thinking about how to go about making a game, some associates of Game Freak magazine who were part of a programming club in Ehime Prefecture told me they could reverse-engineer anything, including the Famicom, so while the concept of “indie” development wasn’t really something people talked about back then, I started to think small-scale development of that nature might be possible, and that’s when we decided to actually make something.

—The Famicom was doing big business at that time, so my personal assumption was that Quinty was a “company-made products”. Given the circumstances, there’s something very inspired about the fact that you made the game independently, brought it to Namco and got them to release it commercially.

Sugimori: I think we were just clueless. (laughs)

—Why did you approach Namco about publishing Quinty?

Sugimori: All the decisions on what was developed and pitched were made by Tajiri. I think the arcades of Tajiri’s youth, which were packed with Namco games, were very formative, not just experientially but also later as a game maker, so I think that notion of “if we take this game to anyone, it’s gotta be Namco” was with him from the beginning.

—So you took the game to Namco because you were all big fans of their work.

Sugimori: Right. We were all captivated by Namco’s games as arcade rats, and to us there would’ve been no greater honor than Namco publishing our game.

—You said that Tajiri took the game to Namco. Do you remember any difficulties with that process?

Sugimori: The rest of us focused on making the game and Tajiri handled all the business negotiations. All our dealings with Namco were filtered through Tajiri, so in that respect we developers didn’t face any hurdles whatsoever.

—How about hurdles with the actual game production? Putting a lot of characters on screen causes slowdown, so I’m sure there were a lot of struggles of that nature.

Sugimori: I mean, not really. It didn’t feel like a job to me, as I was having a ball just making stuff. Whenever some problem would need fixing, I’d be like, woohoo! that’s something else I get to take on. Just getting to draw dot art was a treat for me.

I’d happily work all through the night. I remember finishing up a set of character animations and being asked to make the character a little larger, and I was like, just making them “a little larger” would necessitate a complete redraw!, but then I thought, whatever, no sweat, and simply redrew everything.

As far as the actual craft of drawing dot art is concerned, I didn’t really learn from anybody in particular—I’d study games and anime on my own and take notes: “this particular approach works well for portraying this type of movement”, that sort of thing. Even though I was self-taught, I was able to develop my techniques that way, and I came along pretty well.

—You were fueled by passion.

Sugimori: Definitely. The only real struggle, if anything, was against ROM capacity and finding ways to efficiently re-use character data. I was told that my animations would need to be economical if I wanted them all to fit, so I’d assemble characters from smaller parts, re-use and combine similar animations and whatever other inventive tricks I could come up with to cram everything in.

—Back then, the display limits were so strict that elements like the overall game difficulty were probably balanced around the number of enemies that could be on screen at once, but how did you tune that stuff? I’m guessing you’d enter the data, play it together, talk it over and make adjustments.

Sugimori: Pretty much, yeah. The team making this game was small enough to fit in a single room, so whenever one of us would play the game for a moment, we’d toss out requests like “Hey, up the movement speed a little”, and I feel like we were constantly fine-tuning the game in this manner the entire time.

—At the time, games like Super Mario Bros. were designed and adjusted down to the pixel, and that degree of attention-to-detail really affected the feel of the game. In that same way, you were making minute adjustments to parameters like character speed as you played.

Sugimori: Right. That said, I think Tajiri mostly ran point on balancing the game, and I didn’t get too deeply involved.

Masuda: Yeah, Tajiri handled that, didn’t he?

We weren’t a proper company at that point, so rather than working in a strictly designated role, it was a looser, “hey, take care of this”-style arrangement, and if something bothered any one of us while we were playing, we’d talk it over and someone would adjust it then and there.

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Animation frames from Quinty’s sumo enemy, Plump, taken from the book Game Dot-e no Takumi; in this book, Sugimori says most of his work was conceived and designed directly on development hardware, and therefore there were relatively few physical design documents produced for the game.

—What was the process for creating the sound of Quinty?

Masuda: I knew of Tajiri and the existence of the Game Freak magazine, so I had a friend from trade school, who was acquainted with Tajiri, introduce us. Sometime around then, Sugimori handed me a cassette tape with several tunes from games like The Tower of Druaga and Mappy, as if to say “this is what game music’s all about”.

Sugimori: That was around the time that game soundtracks were just starting to be officially released, and I had a personal collection of game soundtracks I’d recorded myself, so I compiled a few up-tempo tunes onto a cassette and handed it to Masuda, telling him “this is the image I’m picturing”.

Masuda: I played a lot of games so I was already very familiar with them, but actually listening to the tape gave me a better sense of what they were going for.

At that time, I was already making music for myself with my computer, but those tunes were written with lots of simultaneous notes, whereas the Famicom was basically limited to three simultaneous voices plus the noise channel. Once I started working under those constraints, I did have to put some thought into how to proceed. It took a little trial and error to determine how to use each of the three voices and how they’d sound, and subsequently, I ended up anchoring a lot of sounds around the bass lines.

More than anything, I really didn’t like it when the BGM would be interrupted by the sound effects, so I made sure to keep the melody intact to the greatest extent possible. I also worked together with the programmer on the sound effects, and in those days we were writing directly in assembly language.

—That takes me back! Programming in assembler was typical back then, after all. That said, the timing of the sound effects are basically determined by the actions of the player, aren’t they? How were you able to keep the sound effects from eating into your melodies?

Masuda: That’s true, the sound effects do sound at different times depending on how one plays, so the music was written as such that it was okay for certain elements to cut out. For example, the drum patterns are fairly intricate, so if certain parts disappear due to lots of sound effects ringing out, one won’t necessarily notice, but if we’d used more standard quarter-note, kick-and-snare -type beats then when parts would cut out, the player would be like “oh, there go the drums”.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the sound effect for flipping panels in particular, and I remember us having discussions about the extent to which that sound should be prioritized in the overall soundscape.

Quinty’s soundtrack, featuring more than a couple of melodies and phrases that would reappear in multiple future Pokemon games.

—While making games is a lot of fun, I’m sure there were parts of production that required a lot of hard work, and I think indie game development in particular is something that’s not for everyone.

Masuda: I had fun being creative. To me, it was a dream come true.

Back during my first year of employment as a salaryman, I was working on programs for things like banking systems, with no real idea how or where my work was being used, so being able to work on games and see the fruits of my labor reflected directly on-screen, just as I wrote them, was very appealing to me.

Sugimori: Agreed. Nowadays, there are dedicated animation tools and other software that make it relatively easy to create moving images but back in the day, if you wanted to create an animation, you couldn’t do it without going through the process of drawing all the frames, taking photos of each drawing with a camera, and getting the film developed. But with dot art, you could draw something and immediately get it to move, with full control over the entire process, so as an artist, it was like “I’ve never had it better!”

It was also easy to come to creative decisions because there were very clear constraints on what was and wasn’t possible.

—By the same token, wasn’t it fun to come up with clever ways to get around those limitations?

Sugimori: It was, and it was pretty common for Famicom games to re-purpose character animations in somewhat illogical ways and so on, so we had the mettle to pull something together, one way or another.

—As development on Quinty progressed, various games were steadily being released by other developers, and I’m guessing you were referencing other companies’ games for new methods and techniques, like, “if we try this, maybe we can pull this off”?

Sugimori: I don’t recall doing that. No, in fact, from the very beginning… how do I put this… Quinty was made in defiance of what was in vogue. Perhaps that’s what you’d call “indie spirit”.

—How did the game defy contemporary trends?

Sugimori: At the time, Super Mario Bros. had been a huge hit, so there were lots of side-scrolling action games being released. Additionally, the standard ROM capacity for game cartridges was increasing, so games started to become more flashy and expressive, with lots of dialog and text, elaborate stories, big eye-catching boss fights and so on.

Everyone else was heading in that direction, so we went in the opposite direction and did things nobody else was doing. “None of the old arcade games were like that”, we’d say, and whenever some new game was hot, we’d vow to never do what they were doing. In that sense, we had a bit of a rebellious streak.

Quinty has no giant bosses and fixed, single-screen stages, so when we took it to Namco they apparently described it as “outdated”. I can certainly understand why it didn’t strike them as a particularly big deal, but in hindsight, it definitely stands the test of time as a well-crafted game.

I think that rebellious attitude has always been at the core of Game Freak. There’s no point in imitating others, and we’ve always questioned the value of falling in line and doing the same things as everyone else.

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A side-by-side comparison on early and late-era pages from Ken Sugimori’s Quinty manga, which ran across several publications from 1990 to 1995 and is compiled in full in the art book Ken Sugimori Works. As you can see, Sugimori’s illustration style evolved greatly over the course of the manga’s run, with its final volumes bearing a much closer resemblance to the style most would recognize. (click to expand)

—Game Freak could be considered one of the early pioneers of indie game development, which nowadays is quite widespread. Thinking back on your indie days, is there any advice you’d like to give today’s indie developers?

Masuda: Being an indie developer now is much different than it was in our day; it seems like simply making something has become much easier, but on the flip-side, if you’re creating something on your own and you start to feel that it’s boring, there’s a tendency to just give up entirely. I want people to stick with it to the end… or rather, I want them to constantly be thinking about ways to make their games more interesting.

As with regular games and apps, if you try something and it doesn’t seem fun, you’ll drop it and move on to another game, and that’s probably true of making games as well. When we talk to people at Pokemon events, everyone always talks about that “one big idea” that’ll win people over, but I think the reality in most cases is that it takes a convergence of complementary ideas for something to become truly engaging. So, my advice is don’t ever stop trying to come up with new ideas, because I think they can only make for a more fun game.

Sugimori: My advice might come off as impertinent, but I see various kinds of people making indie games, from those who are following their passions to those trying to strike it rich, and I think some of the recent indie success stories might have fostered that latter kind of ambition, but if you put too much energy into trying to chase a hit then your work will come across as a marketing exercise or something. So, if you can, I’d like you to make something that only you could create, and have the guts to make something unprecedented that’ll cause a stir, and I’m sure you’ll come up with something fun. Hmm, perhaps that advice is really something only young people can follow.

—Do you feel like the experiences you had making Quinty still inform your work today? Conversely, do you think you’ve changed since then?

Masuda: There’s a character in Quinty called Mira whose movement controls the BGM, and when she stops moving, so does the music. Interactive elements like that one are what I find most interesting about game music, but today’s game music tends to err towards the luxurious and more conventional, so I’d urge people to try more exciting things with game music, as that direct connection to gameplay is what makes game music the most fun.

Sugimori: Because we no longer have to worry about storage capacity when it comes to graphics, there’s a tendency to just keep adding new things to a game as we see fit, and subsequently, I think that can dilute the impressionability of individual characters, so I think the narrow focus of a game like Quinty is still valid. These days, if you were to say “there are 8 enemy types”, people might see that as inadequate, but I think there’s still something to be said for taking a single enemy and having them act differently on each stage, or otherwise reusing them in peculiar ways.

Masuda: Yeah, like changing their color! But nowadays, changing colors is a real pain—it used to be that you could easily change a character’s colors via palette swaps, but that method doesn’t exist anymore, so color swaps are a thing of the past.

—Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Sugimori: We’ve heard all the requests for Quinty to come to Virtual Console, and with the help of Bandai-Namco, I’m glad we were able to make that dream a reality.

Masuda: What was the line from the old TV commercial… “mekurumeku kaikan2“? I hope you enjoy flipping once once more. I don’t think there are many flipping games out there.

Also, Quinty marked my debut as a game composer, so I hope you enjoy those old-school chiptunes as well. Actually, I cheekily referenced a few phrases from Quinty in Pokemon Gold & Silver’s rival theme.

—It was fun to relive the history of Quinty, and I hope people will enjoy playing Quinty once again on Wii U. Thanks for your time today!

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Masuda and Sugimori celebrated Quinty’s 25th anniversary and first reissue with a cake.