The Illustrators of SNK – 2001 Developer Interview
originally featured in Arcadia magazine
Tonko – The Last Blade series, Garou: MOW, Metal Slug 4/5/6/7
Hiroaki – KOF 2000-03, Buriki ONE, FF: Wild Ambition, Garou: MOW
—Am I right in understanding that this is the first interview ever for the both of you?
Tonko: That’s right.
—It’s an honor then. (laughs) To start off, could you tell us a little about how you ended up becoming professional illustrators?
Hiroaki: I studied design in both high school and college. SNK actually came to our school fairly often to tell us about their company, at career days and the like. It looked like an interesting place to work, so I applied and got hired. I have to admit, what I found “interesting” about it wasn’t necessarily art-related, though. (laughs)
—Where did you go to college?
Hiroaki: Osaka University of Arts.
Hiroaki’s self-portrait, taken from the SNK 40th Anniversary website; his work is recognized not only by game fans but by his home town of Marugame in Kagawa Prefecture, which awarded him the title of cultural ambassador in 2013.
—That’s the same school that director Hideaki Anno went to.
Hiroaki: It’s also Zenjiro‘s alma mater. And the comedy duo Pink Telephone. (laughs)
—And Tonko, how about you?
Tonko: I didn’t go to a design-focused school, and I majored in the performing arts in college… so sort of a whole different universe. Midway through college I dropped out and drifted for awhile, until one day, I heard that SNK’s design department was hiring illustrators. I submitted some of my works, and by a stroke of luck, I got hired.
SNK: We don’t normally hire people that way, but her submissions were so great, we hired her on the spot. (laughs)
—After getting hired, then, did you both start working as illustrators right away?
Hiroaki: No. I certainly thought I would start illustrating right away. (laughs) I went around from development to development whining, “Let me draw something! Anything!” (laughs)
—Which developments, specifically?
Hiroaki: I worked on Garou: Mark of the Wolves (MOW) a little bit, where I designed Rock’s jumper with the star mark on the backside. I was quickly shuffled over to the new polygon fighter, Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition (FF:WA), to work as an illustrator.
SNK: Hiroaki’s boss vouched for him, so he was selected to do the character illustrations for the character select and demo screen. Partly it was because Shinkiro had his hands full with illustrating KOF, but Hiroaki had shown himself to be very productive in terms of his drawing output, so we figured it would be OK to entrust him with the character illustration job.
Hiroaki: I remember that time… it was absolutely crazy.
—What was the most challenging thing about it?
Hiroaki: Every senior colleague I asked had their own, different image of Terry Bogard. (everyone laughs) And they were very strict when reviewing my work. “Terry’s face, shoulders, and chest muscles should all be the same size.” “The way his hair falls is canon, don’t change it.” Then there were coloring corrections and the like. I’d spend all day working on just one image, and after having it checked I’d have to re-draw everything. It was rough-going like that for awhile.
—That does sound challenging. And what pace did you work at?
Hiroaki: For the character select illustrations, I could do two in one day. For the full character illustrations it was one per day.
—That’s still ridiculously fast!
SNK: Hiroaki is slow to start, but once he does, he goes very quickly. He’s like a car that you need to leave running: so we never gave him a proper deadline, but instead were always telling him “it’s due! now!”, prodding him on that way. (laughs) Well, I guess now the secret is out. (laughs)
Hiroaki: At the time I didn’t know what a “normal” pace was for the other illustrators at SNK, so I just did as I was asked and diligently plowed ahead. But it’s also true that I’m the type of person more suited to the focus of short-term projects; when things drag on I get bored.
Tonko’s self-portrait, taken from the SNK 40th Anniversary website (and given further context later in the interview). Incidentally, Tonko is credited for her non-SNK work by her real name, Aki Senno.
—I see. (laughs) Tonko, in your case, you started working on The Last Blade immediately after getting hired, correct?
Tonko: No, actually I was hired in 1997, and my first job was designing picture frames for the Neo Print photo booth. I can’t remember exactly how many, but I drew a crazy amount of those each month. Oh, and my magazine debut, as an illustrator, was for an advertisement for the Neo Print.
Tonko: Yeah, a picture frame I drew, with some teddy bears, was part of an ad that ran in Gamest. That was my debut. (laughs)
—How did you go from that to The Last Blade, then?
Tonko: After that, the chance came up for me to draw the female Drill Instructor character for the PlayStation version of Metal Slug. I believe that was my first illustration after Neo Print.
—Didn’t you also draw some images of the Orochi Team for KOF?
Tonko: Did I…? (laughs)
SNK: She did some quick illustrations for the fan club telephone cards, yes.
—And after that you started The Last Blade.
SNK: When we first saw The Last Blade on screen, from the character art in the demo screen, the art style seemed to be closer to the original cel drawings, with less pronounced outlines. We therefore felt that Shinkiro’s style wouldn’t be right for this. On the other hand, the developers wanted to make something distinct from Samurai Shodown, so Eiji Shiroi wouldn’t work either. It was good timing then, as Tonko was recommended (by The Last Blade developers actually) just as we were needing a new style, and that’s how she was chosen.
—Tonko, how did it feel when you were given the job? Were you like, “finally!”
Tonko: I didn’t have any confidence in myself at first. But the dev team was doing such amazing work, and I wanted to honor the spirit of what they’d created, so that inspired me to give it my all. Samurai Shodown had also been such a big hit, and that instilled a sense of competition in me. I’m the type of artist who, once I get down to work, I get completely absorbed in it and forget everything around me. (laughs)
—Let’s talk art materials and tools. What do you both like to use?
Hiroaki: Up to now, I’ve done everything in Painter. I keep hearing all these neat things “Photoshop” can do, though…
Tonko: One time we had a little bragging competition, about whose digital art software was better.
—Do you use Photoshop then, Tonko?
Tonko: That’s right.
Hiroaki: I said, take a look at all these cool things you can do in Painter.
Tonko: And, I go, yeah, Photoshop can do that too.
Hiroaki: I was like, what?! It was a fun, pointless little battle. (laughs)
Sophia, the drill instructor designed by Tonko for the PlayStation port of Metal Slug; subsequently, Tonko would contribute a wide range of designs and illustrations for the Metal Slug series, including games 4, 5, 6 and 7, and she’s currently employed as one of SNK’s primary designers on the mobile Metal Slug titles.
—With partisans on both sides. (laughs) Had you used the computer for art before SNK, then?
Tonko: No. While almost all of my art is done digitally now, in the beginning I had no clue how to use these programs. (laughs) I was pretty helpless. “Helppp, how do I fill this in?”
—How did you draw the frames for the Neo Print then?
Tonko: Those were a mix—about half in Illustrator, half by-hand.
Hiroaki: I still don’t know how to use Illustrator myself.
—What, really? How do you draw the logos for your illustrations then?
Hiroaki: I use the path tool in Painter.
Tonko: If you understand the path tool, you might as well just do it in Illustrator. (laughs)
—So Tonko, none of your illustrations have been hand-drawn then?
Tonko: Actually, there was one, for an old Atari game called Maximum Force. SNK handled the promotion and sales for that game, and I did an illustration for an insert that came with the PCB. That was my arcade game debut.
—That must be quite rare now. (laughs) Who are some of your favorite illustrators and manga artists?
Hiroaki: I like western comics. Kent Williams and Mike Mignola are two of my favorites. Kent Williams draws stuff that, when I look at it I think “I can do that”, but then when I try, I fail. I’m still too inexperienced. Mignola’s use of monochromatic black is exquisite, he’s a wonderful artist. His style of exaggerating proportions is really cool. For Japanese artists, I like Buichi Terasawa. When I was a kid I wanted a Psychogun so bad, I used to draw it on my arm with a magic marker. The way he draws asses excites me, too. (laughs)
—If you had to pick a favorite manga, what would it be?
Hiroaki: I liked Fist of the North Star and Kinnikuman, wouldn’t call myself a crazy fan or anything though. I like drawing muscles, so I’ve probably been influenced by those. For Kinnikuman, I used to draw a bunch of my own Chojin creations, with the intention of someday submitting them to the Chojin Contest. (laughs) Actually I still do it, and I’ve got a big stock built up by now that I’m quite proud of!
Tonko: Nooo, I wanted to talk about Kinnikuman! You beat me to it! (laughs)
Buichi Terasawa’s Cobra, better known as Space Adventure Cobra overseas. Hiroaki and Tonko are both big fans.
—The muscles are one of the stand-out features of your illustrations, Hiroaki, but it sounds like it’s been a strength of yours for a long time.
Hiroaki: I’d always liked drawing them myself, but some of that was the influence of two fellow artists I went to college with (who’re now big stars with Sony and Capcom). When I saw their art, I thought “Whoa, wait? Is it really OK to be so obsessed with muscles?” Those two are my lifelong rivals.
I also love Bruce Lee, so that’s another influence. At my college dorm, my friends and I used to play around and re-enact Bruce Lee fights. “Ok, now it’s my turn to be Bruce Lee!” I used to practice his famous poses in front of the mirror all the time, too.
—It all makes sense now. (laughs) One thing I was curious about, were you at all influenced by Takehiko Inoue?
Hiroaki: I’ve been asked that before, but no, not particularly. I am reading Vagabond though. (laughs) I read to about volume 11 of Slam Dunk when I was in high school, and the “I want to play basketball” line made me cry. In the middle of class. (laughs)
—Tonko, which artists are you a fan of?
Tonko: In manga, Osamu Tezuka. The first work I read of his was Phoenix (Hi no Tori), which was so interesting. The animals were cute in it too. I like Shigeru Mizuki‘s pen drawings too, the ones with a realistic touch. Hiroaki mentioned Buichi Terasawa a minute ago, but I’m also a fan.
—Are you equally stimulated by Terasawa’s backsides?
Tonko: No. (laughs) Another artist I love is Hinako Sugiura. The way she captures the atmosphere of the Edo period is wonderful. It’s something I’ve tried to evoke in my illustrations for The Last Blade, but…
—The illustrations for The Last Blade 2 were done in the style of ukiyo-e, which I’m guessing you also like?
Tonko: That’s right. I like that style of drawing, with the spare linework, where it feels like each line was carefully selected by the artist. It’s a decisive way of drawing that I find fascinating.
Tonko’s main illustration for The Last Blade 2, featured on arcade flyers and home box art.
—By the way, this is a small digression, but in a previous issue we did a roundtable interview with some Capcom illustrators, and we asked them what they thought the difference was between Capcom and SNK’s characters. Would you two like to weigh in on that?
Hiroaki: In terms of clothing, SNK characters are usually wearing clothes you could actually buy yourself. Capcom characters have more crazy, oversized, or tattered clothing—stuff you couldn’t go out and buy.
I think Capcom’s characters are also easier to draw from a single glance—they’re really good at giving them distinct features, be it green skin or bushy hair or what-have-you. They’re like Pokemon, like Pikachu in that sense. But interestingly, good characters like Pikachu or Mickey Mouse—they’re actually quite difficult to imitate. SNK takes a different route. A character like K’1, visually, he’s not someone you can immediately recognize. Even his silhouette.
Tonko: I think the distinctive feature of SNK characters is that they’re immediately likable—you quickly feel an affinity for them. As for Capcom, another feature of their characters is that their forms are very perfect. I feel like they’d be easy to render in 3D.
—Turning now to the games you’ve been involved in, Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition was mentioned, as was Buriki ONE. Did you start working on Buriki ONE right after FF:WA finished, then?
Hiroaki: No, when I joined the Buriki ONE team, I continued to work on the FF:WA illustrations for awhile.
—Oh, so you were on the Buriki ONE development at the same time as FF:WA?
Hiroaki: I joined SNK in 1998, and from July to September I worked on FF:WA, and I joined the Buriki ONE team around November.
Tonko: That reminds me, I remember I participated in a little in-house competition to draw the FF:WA characters. I drew Geese. I lost. (laughs)
Hiroaki: What!! I didn’t know that!
SNK: We decided it was pressure you didn’t need, so we didn’t say anything. (laughs)
—(laughs) How was it working on Buriki ONE?
Hiroaki: A lot of the world and characters had already been created before I joined the development, but after I joined, my senior colleague threw all that in the trash bin and said “Now that you’re here Hiroaki, it’s your job to come up with all that!” However, even though I was supposedly given free reign, whenever I brought my ideas they’d tell me “Oh, that’s not the image we’re going for.” So I had to do many, many retakes. (laughs)
As far as the work itself went, the characters’ personalities and nationalities were set, so figuring out how to convey that visually was my main job. When I drew Payak, the Muay Thai fighter, we actually had some muay thai pants lying around our office, so after hours I put them on and ran around the office to the bathroom, where I posed with them in front of the mirror. When I was drawing Akatsuki-Maru, I felt like I didn’t understand the mentality of sumo wrestlers well enough, so I did some mock sumo matches with a colleague of mine.
For Ryo Sakazaki’s design, I really hated his orange dogi, so I took it upon myself to change it to a more chic color. “Now this is cool,” I thought to myself, and I took the liberty of giving him some stubble too.
—Did the 3D modelers get angry at your changes?
Hiroaki: We sat directly across from and facing each other while we worked, so I’d show them my changes immediately, and I had them sketch in the beard textures to see if they worked. (laughs) During FF:WA, I drew a very devilish looking Yamazaki too, but they made me redraw him many times.
From left to right: Ryo Sakazaki’s traditional design circa 1999, Hiroaki’s redesign for Buriki ONE and the alternate redesign used in Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition. These two alternate designs were revisited in the non-canon games Neo Geo Battle Coliseum and King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2, respectively, but clean-shaven, orange-gi Ryo has remained the representative design across The King of Fighters games and other appearances.
SNK: He had horns!
Hiroaki: I drew Yamazaki with a hairstyle that looked like horns. I thought it was so damn cool, but it was shot down. (laughs)
—By the way, you mentioned you were working on Buriki ONE’s illustrations after the standard 9-5 working hours, but why was that?
Hiroaki: During the day, I was needed to help with the motion capture. In order to make all those impact poses, we actually hit each other. (laughs) Man, Buriki ONE really had a huge number of those hit/impact patterns. And so as you can imagine, it really hurt! Our boss would hit the workers with these sandbags, then they’d switch it up and we get to hit our boss… now that’s what I call putting in real work. (laughs)
—Putting your life on the line. (laughs)
Hiroaki: I wanted them to put “actor” under my name in the ending credits, but they refused, unfortunately. Oh, here’s something: you know how at the end of the opening demo of Buriki ONE, it shows the main character Gai running to the ring? I was the model for that motion capture too. Earlier that day I had been doing those practice sumo matches, so I was already pretty tired when they came to me and said, “Hey, could you run for us a bit?” Then we got a capture of me doing a kind of half-assed, dogged run which they used as-is in the demo there. (laughs) After that day ended, I stayed after hours again, and with my shaky tired hand, did some more illustrating.
—…wow. That schedule sounds punishing, illustrating after a day of full-body exercise. Did you even have time to sleep?
Hiroaki: I would spend the night at the office, then the next morning I’d go home for a quick shower, grab a few extra Zs, then it was back to the office for another day of (literal) pummeling.
Overall, SNK had a lot of “jock” types. They kept 5kg barbells beside their desk, and every now and then they’d get up, stretch their arms, and in a semi-threatening voice say “Man, I’m getting stiff here. I need to pump!” Then they’d start lifting right there in the middle of the office. I’m sitting here thinking, “how the hell did these guys get into game development?”
—By the way, what was the illustration schedule?
Hiroaki: Again, I did one illustration each day. They asked me to complete a poster a day too. (laughs) For the main visuals2, I could do two every 3 days, going from rough draft to finish.
—The 1P and 2P character portraits in Buriki ONE each give off a different impression.
Hiroaki: SNK is company known mainly for their 2D FTGs, so the 2P-side portraits were deliberately designed to have a little bit of 2D feel to them.
—I see. After Buriki ONE, I understand you went on to do visuals for KOF 2000.
SNK: Up to that point, Hiroaki had been working as a development staff member, but for various reasons, we decided to move him to the design department after that, and he worked on some other projects for awhile then. At that time, the KOF 2000 development team was in the process of deciding how they wanted to change up the game’s image (from the previous iterations). Shinkiro was going to do the illustrations, but why not have Hiroaki do the main visuals? Hiroaki himself lept at the chance, and so it was decided.
Hiroaki: When I drew K’, they told me the color of his eyes was wrong—to which I replied, that’s because he’s looking at Kula, and it’s the color of her hair reflected in them. I had added a lot of little details to his leather jeans, too, but at the designer’s insistence the color was changed to black and they were lost. (laughs)
SNK: We changed the logo around for KOF 2000, and did a lot of experimenting in general.
Hiroaki: I remember one time I drew some POP art for the KOF 2000 PCB cabinet, to display during the location test we were doing. Art in hand, I tried to enter the Neogeo Land game center at the front entrance, only to have the employee tell me “Excuse me sir, the employee entrance is over there.” I said a quick “Oh, sorry…” and scurried off. (laughs)
SNK: Wow, they had you drawing illustrations for the location test too? (laughs)
—You did a whole illustration just for a single location test?!
Hiroaki: That’s right. It was a drawing of Ramon, but I like Bruce Lee so I drew him in that style. (laughs)
—Are there any characters you have trouble drawing?
Hiroaki: I’m bad at drawing women, so I had to draw Kula over and over… yet she still didn’t come out very cute. (laughs)
—And in contrast, who do you find easy to draw?
Hiroaki: I find “bastard” characters easy to draw. I’ve drawn K’ so many times I’ve basically memorized each part of his body. (laughs) Also, I used to do karate a long time ago, so I find those fighters easy to draw.
—Tonko, before we get into your work, I’d like to ask a completely unrelated question: where did your name come from?
Tonko: There’s like, this female pig in Time Bokan who climbs a tree, who had a name like that I think3. When it came time for me to choose a pen name, I just picked it without thinking about it too deeply or anything. (laughs)
—Tonko, you told us earlier how you got involved in The Last Blade, but I feel that it was around this time that your art style started to change.
Tonko: Oh, you think so?
—It’s something I noticed especially with the Dreamcast version.
Tonko: Ah, well, the illustrations I did for the Dreamcast port of The Last Blade were sort of an exercise in “fan service”, you could say. I deliberately let loose, stylistically, and tried to draw in a way that I thought fans would find fun and entertaining. I don’t think it was me changing my overall drawing style so much as it was focusing on those specific character quirks, though.
—I see. And which characters do you find particularly challenging to draw?
Tonko: Moriya Minakata is a bit tough for me. (laughs) He’s got that “cool” aura to him, so it’s difficult to find a good expression for his face.
—How about characters you find easy to draw, or that you especially enjoy drawing?
Tonko: I have something I like about each of them, but I really like Lee Rekka. I like his lion dance winning pose, and his Empty Shadow Kick.
—Are you a fan of Hong Kong cinema Tonko?
Hiroaki: I don’t know if she’d go that far. But she does own a signed copy (from Sonny Chiba) of the DVD for The Storm Riders.
—That sounds like maniac level to me. (laughs)
Tonko: No, I just have a friend who likes to go to movie festivals sometimes, and I accompanied them and had the DVD signed there.
—How did you get involved in the Garou: Mark of the Wolves development?
SNK: This was being developed at the same time as The Last Blade, and the developers were aiming to make a Garou game with a new aesthetic and outlook, so we decided to go with Tonko.
Tonko: I had personally played a lot of Fatal Fury Special, so I was familiar with the look and feel of the series. But this game didn’t use the line battle system, and it took place 8 years after the events of the original with a new generation of fighters, so I tried not to be influenced by my previous experiences. I did promotional illustrations and the ending illustrations. It was a lot of fun.
—How did you end up doing the ending illustrations too?
Tonko: I usually look for an opportunity to get involved somewhere in the actual game development, beyond the promotional illustration stuff. There was work that needed to be done for the ending so I volunteered. The storyboards themselves were done by a different designer, but it was fun to illustrate nonetheless.
—Were any of the characters in MOW particularly hard to draw?
Tonko: That would have to be Terry. He’s been the main protagonist of the whole series, so I knew the fans would be very critical. I was always feeling a mix of nervous and excited whenever I drew him. (laughs)
—Your personal favorite characters?
—He’s another “character”, literally. (laughs)
Hiroaki: At first, Marco had a full Afro—he was even cooler then.
Hiroaki: Yeah, when he did his headbutt, his afro would go “boing!” and bounce forward. (laughs)
Tonko: His hair had to be changed for various reasons, but his designer was like, “If you get rid of his chest hair, I’m quitting!” (laughs)
—What do you feel the difference is between The Last Blade and Fatal Fury series?
Tonko: The Last Blade is not a cheerful world. I think it offers a unique, richly emotional atmosphere though. Garou: Mark of the Wolves, on the other hand, is a more upbeat and candid.
—By the way, was it the same staff working on MOW and The Last Blade?
Tonko: No, it wasn’t. MOW was originally being developed by a very select group; later, a few of the Last Blade staff joined in. The waterfall stage, and several others, were done by The Last Blade staff. Visually I think you can see a bit of The Last Blade’s style in those stages.
Mark of the Wolves’ waterfall stage, one of the many exemplary late-era Neo Geo stages that demonstrated the peak of SNK’s craftsmanship.
—This question is for both of you, but what kind of illustrations would you like to do in the future?
Hiroaki: Seeing the characters I’d designed in Buriki ONE come to life and move on-screen was awesome for me, so I’d like to try doing more character design. I’m interested in anime character design too. Also, this is unrelated, but I’d like to draw the SMAP members sometime. Hey, Gackt, if you’re reading this… you should let me draw the illustrations for your CD jackets or something.
Tonko: Now that sounds nice. (laughs) Personally, I’d like to do some illustrations for books and novels.
Hiroaki: Oh, one thing I *wouldn’t* want to do is concept art for adventure games or anything like that.
Tonko: Why? I think that would be fun.
Hiroaki: It looks too hard. It’s like, I’d kind of like to do manga too, but come on, I don’t have the patience for that! (laughs)
—Please leave a final message for your fans today.
Hiroaki: I want to draw more art that makes you go “badass!” when you first see it, so… LOOK AT IT! I mean, please take a look. (laughs) I also want to appear in a future Star Wars movie. If anyone with connections is reading this, please put in a word for me.
Tonko: I will keep trying to create good illustrations, so thank you for all your support.
—And thank the both of you for taking the time to talk with us today!
These images are a select few illustrations chosen from Hiroaki & Tonko’s vast SNK portfolios; click on each image to expand them to full size.
Bonus clip; Tonko draws Tizoc!