In this long and candid interview from 2001, SNK alum Koji Obata describes the company’s early-’80s struggles, their re-emergence as an arcade powerhouse, the self-proclaimed “SNK golden age” and his own role in the production of several of SNK’s most cherished and innovative products including TANK, Ikari Warriors, Guevara and the humble “loop lever”.

Also discussed is SNK’s transition away from discrete arcade PCBs and towards the Neo Geo, a move that brought them massive profits and market penetration at the arguable expense of developer freedom, be it freedom of creativity, freedom of subversive expression or simply the freedom to copy another company’s game if one felt like doing so.

This interview was translated as research material for the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, a carefully-selected anthology of pre-Neo Geo SNK games spanning both arcade and consoles that contains a massive museum of behind-the-scenes documents, promotional material, trivia and info on every game made and released (or not!) by SNK from 1978 to 1990.

1986 VGM Roundtable feat. SNK
The Making of Athena (1993)
The Origins of SNK (1996)

 

Ikari Warriors, Guerilla War, and The SNK Golden Age

originally featured in the 3/01 issue of CONTINUE magazine

Koji Obada – Designer/Director

—Wow, this is an awesome space you’ve got here… it’s full of books, videos, computer stuff.

Obada: We’ve got a staff of five people now, and I designed the room to feel like the office of an old-school game developer: machines filling up every nook, papers/trash/books piled up everywhere, manga to read, a place to sleep overnight. It’s the kind of place a kid would want to hang out in. I really like the image and vibe of those kinds of places.

—It looks just like the old game developer rooms—though I never saw them personally myself. (laughs)

Obada: Indeed, some of the older developers from the SNK era saw it and said to me, “It looks just like our old 1st Division Planning Room!” (laughs) We’re actually doing a PC training program aimed at kids in the next room over. We teach them how to make games, how to draw CG, and other related skills.

—Hah, it’s the Ikari Warriors Gifted and Talented Program! (laughs) Man, that sounds awesome though. I wanted to be that kid too, who actually knew how to make a game like Ikari Warriors.

Obada: Well, we don’t limit our teaching to one style. It’s more like, “Make whatever you want, as long as it’s interesting.”

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Koji Obada, former game developer and current-day onmyouji.

—Obada, when did you join SNK?

Obada: I think it was sometime around 1982 or 83. No one knows it now, but my first game I worked on was Joyful Road, that racing car game that makes the byuu! sound when you accelerate. I did the character design for it, which was aimed towards American audiences. I think I officially joined SNK full-time after that work, actually.

—Your next game was TANK in 1985, correct?

Obada: That sounds about right. I don’t know the exact dates though.

—How did the TANK development originally get started?

Obada: The company was actually on the verge of bankruptcy at that time, and our thinking was, “hey, if we’re going to go bankrupt, let’s do something crazy and go out with a bang!” There was this Taito game out called Frontline, and one of our programmers saw it and said and he thought he could take that format and do something a little more interesting with it. So we made the loop lever joysticks, the cabinet, and poured all our remaining budget into this one last extravagant game. We cribbed aspects of Frontline, and also gathered up and researched all the doujinshi-related materials we could find, and used all that as the base for TANK’s development.

—It sounds just like an episode of PROJECT X. (laughs)

Obada: Just the year before, we’d had hundreds of employees, but then SNK started sliding, and we’d cut everything down to only 20 or so employees. There were only about 10 developers left. Everyone was thinking, “if our next paycheck doesn’t come, let’s quit.” But if we did that, we figured it might make finding our next job difficult, so we decided on this big gamble. We’d either go out with this spectacular bang—or, if our game really did well, it might be a hit and save the company.

We didn’t take a single day off while working on TANK—we probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway. We gave it our all, and with a team of about 4 people somehow managed to finish it.

—The last hurrah of the creative spirit.

Obada: Well, also around that time, there was a company called “Nishi Nippon Dream”, and the President of that company saw what was happening to us and came to the aid of SNK’s president, Eikichi Kawasaki, lending the company money to stay afloat.

—So SNK was a really large company before this?

Obada: Yeah. Did you know, the very term “Invader House” was coined by the President of SNK? It’s said that in those days at SNK, with just a single night’s profits you could buy a whole house. SNK President Kawasaki was also the first person to come up with the idea of a name entry for high scores. He did a lot of different things. He was also very good friends with the President of XXXX 1, though ultimately their friendship soured.

—Ah, so the rumors are true! (laughs) What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?

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The cover of the arcade manual for TNK. III, the overseas version of TANK. (source: Flyer Fever)

Obada: I don’t want to say too much, when XXXX splintered off independently from OOOO, President Kawasaki lent them money, which XXXX used to build a factory for manufacturing PCB ROMs (because their games were selling more). They ended up fighting over that, and as I understand it, that led to their falling out. Then President Kawasaki went on the attack against XXXX…

—Am I to take that as literallly as it sounds…?

Obada: Because of that, the President wasn’t able to attend our party commemorating the completion of our office. Other than that, at the time, most of the game companies got along. A lot of the makers were connected in some way or another to Taito, and like SNK, those were the early days when all these companies were just starting to pop up.

—That makes sense. You were like siblings who all grew up under the same father: Space Invaders.

Obada: Everyone got along back then, and we all worked near each other too. Konami and Namco’s sales headquarters was in Esaka, which was just a hop and skip away from Sega and Taito in Kamishinjou. Everyone would get together and have these big baseball games, though we would always get destroyed. You’d often hear people saying how exhausted they were from working on games 24/7.

—Starting with TANK, you developed a number of games with the “loop lever”-style rotary joystick controls. Where did that idea come from?

Obada: Our hands hurt, so someone got the idea to put a film capsule container over the joystick, which would spin around in place there. That actually felt pretty good, and we thought we might be onto something.

—The only way to experience those rotary joysticks was at the game center. And yet, it seems like they weren’t around for very long. Why did you stop making games for them? Was it a matter of maintenance, or were they just annoying to install?

Obada: There were various reasons, but mainly we just decided to stop making them ourselves. When I think back on it now, I think it’d be interesting to see more games made with those rotary controls. It expands the gameplay possibilities, right? You can move and change your shooting direction at the same time.

Ikari Warriors

—After TANK, the next game you made with rotary controls was Ikari.

Obada: That’s right. With that game, we originally wanted to make a game version of the movie Rambo II, which was titled “Rambo: Ikari no Dasshutsu” (Rambo: The Furious Escape) in Japan. But we couldn’t get the rights to it, and had to settle on calling it simply “Ikari.” Later, however, we actually did get in contact with Sylvester Stallone and talked with him about getting the rights…

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Promotional art for the Japanese release of Rambo II, the Ikari arcade license that never was.

—Wow, amazing!

Obada: Unfortunately we had already debuted Ikari at an American arcade game expo and it was really popular, and people were already calling it “IKARI” (with the American pronounciation of “Eye-Car-E”), so we couldn’t change the name by that point. We apologized to Sylvester Stallone and just went ahead with the title Ikari Warriors.

—So does Stallone still own an Ikari Warriors pcb, then?

Obada: I imagine he probably does. As a matter of fact, the President of the SNK sales office in America was personal friends with Stallone. The President was a really weird guy but he knew a lot of famous people. All our interfacing with celebrities and such went through him.

—Ikari also had 2P co-op play. Where did that idea come from?

Obada: Right at the time we were making Ikari, the Laws Regulating Adult Businesses (fuueihou) went into effect. Game centers could no longer operate 24 hours a day, and their hours of operation were effectively cut in half. That naturally led to everyone in the game industry to think, “well, if we make the games two-player, we can double the income, and it’ll be ok.”

—But it was only the Ikari Warriors series that allowed you to attack your friend. (laughs)

Obada: Around that time, ROMs had just gotten a whole lot cheaper, so developers started talking about being able to use bigger sprites, and every company started to make their characters larger. At SNK that got us thinking, “wouldn’t it be fun if we could attack each other?” Our first idea was that when you throw a hand grenade it will kill the enemy, but your ally could be caught in the blast and die, too. The design underwent subtle changes as the development went on: first your ally was invincible, then he could only be killed by special grenades, then any grenade, then finally any bullet could kill him, aka full friendly fire.

—Both TANK and Ikari are slaughterfests, you kill so many people. I was wondering: why does your life gauge increase when you run people over…?

Obada: At first, we were thinking of a more sci-fi setting for Ikari. Our idea was something like, “the enemies are robots, and if you run over and destroy them, you get some energy back.” Midway through development, though, one of our designers suggested we try adding blood, and it looked really cool, so we went in that direction instead. That escalated in the MSX2 version of Ikari, where the enemies bleed out when they die, and there’s drowned bodies, and other gory stuff.

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A screenshot from less-detailed but still extra-bloody MSX2 conversion of Ikari Warriors.

—You really put a lot of thought into all the different ways people can die!

Obada: The game is a war of humans vs humans, so we thought we’d get a bigger reaction out of players by focusing on the death scenes. There’s no such thing as “just dying”—it’s always a gruesome spectacle, we thought, so we put a lot of energy into that. Whether the players were shooting the enemy, or the enemy shooting the player, we wanted to visually convey the impact and sensation of being shot.

—Yeah, when they bled and collapsed, you could really feel it.

Obada: Exactly. I’m anti-war and all, but I felt it’s just a game, so it didn’t really matter. I mean, if I had to say why humans play games at all, I think it’s because we are an innately aggressive species. By playing games like this, it allows people to express that aggression safely, and they won’t kill anyone in real life. That was my thinking at least. So, you could say, I actually *wanted* to make games that people would find offensive. Because in those days you didn’t yet have people blaming video games for this, that, and the other.

—It sounds like you didn’t give a damn about that.

Obada: Nope. Plus, look at America, they were making games where you run people over in a taxi and a little grave pops up. When I went to America and saw how violent their games were, it was like, “whoa, look how far they’ve gone.”

—American games were a lot more “dirty” at that time, weren’t they.

Obada: Yeah, though eventually Americans started telling us “You can’t put blood in your game.” From my perspective it was like, “you traitors!” We scratched our heads for a bit wondering what to do, but then we tried simply changing the color of the blood to blue, and that seemed to satisfy them. (laughs)

—I would say that Ikari Warriors felt like a mix of Frontline plus Rambo, with the ability to run people over from TANK.

Obada: Another thing I really wanted to have was chain explosions, so when an enemy is blown up with a grenade, and another enemy or player is caught in the blast, it will cause a chain reaction of explosions. I said that to the programmers halfway into the development, and they told me “we’ll have to rewrite the entire program.” So that took a bit of extra time.

—Last year, the fighter Kazushi Sakuraba (famous for defeating the Gracie family of brazilian jujitsu fighters) talked about Ikari at length in an interview. He said he played it all through his high school years, at his local candy shop. (laughs)

Obada: That’s great. We certainly went through hell making it, but in some ways I’m glad I went through the experience. There were several times I thought I might actually die. I’d wake up and be coughing up blood. I wasn’t getting any sleep, and was living off this cheap medicine called jufurotan, aspirin, and stomach medicine… my diet consisted purely of steak. Honestly, I can’t believe how little I slept, and how much I got done in that half-dazed state.

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A screenshot from Capcom’s Commando (1985), which may be Ikari’s most conspicuous influence; Commando director Tokuro Fujiwara later expressed regret about being so slow to release a genuine followup to Commando and for allowing SNK and others to iterate on and even pre-empt his ideas uncontested.

—Sounds like a pretty oppressive working environment…

Obada: A whole lot of people had an image of game developers then, that they were being intimidated by yakuza into working in these sweatshop style conditions. Well, it was definitely a sweatshop, but it was one we entered of our own free will.

—(laughs) Did you also go to game centers to see how popular your games were?

Obada: At the SNK game centers, we had hidden cameras installed in the ceiling so we could watch all day and see what kind of people were playing the games. We were at the office pretty much all day and night, you see, only leaving to catch the very last train of the night. I don’t know how many months that schedule went on. The sense was that if we wanted to escape this, we needed to make a game that would make a lot of money. But Guevera was a step in the right direction, I think.

—That sounds severe. (laughs) Do you have any particularly memorable episodes to share from that time?

Obada: There was this one night we raked in a huge income at the game center. The terrifying thing, though, was this scary looking guy and his girl. He exchanged all the money in her purse for 100 yen coins and they played through the night. The games he was playing hadn’t been fully playtested, and we were saying, “What happens if there’s a bug…? Is he going to kill us?”

—(laughs)

Obada: Another time, around the release of Ikari, somehow the pcb caught on fire… it was charred completely black when we got it out. It turns out someone had gotten mad and lit the cabinet itself on fire. I guess he had put too much money into it. For my part, I felt pretty proud that I had made a game that riled someone up so much that they felt they needed to light it on fire. When I went to the game center and saw the aftermath of the incident, though, I couldn’t really say that. (laughs)

Around that time, the singer Kyoko Koizumi (aka Kyon Kyon) talked about Ikari on a radio program, and how much money she had sunk into it. I remember writing her a letter of thanks for that.

—There were a lot of idols back then who were surprisingly good at games, actually. I remember Noriko Sakai could clear Bubble Bobble on one credit.

Obada: Game centers were part of that whole culture, you could say.

—It’s being lost today, but I loved that mysterious atmosphere of the old game centers, with all the cabinets lined up impressively, the screens all glowing in the darkness, the noisy din of sound from all the different games.

Obada: About that—we actually designed the sound in our games to be heard above the fray. We did this for TANK too, where we’d go to the game center and record the ambient noise level, then play that back to check the mix on our game volume. That’s one reason Ikari is so noisy, like ridiculously so.

For TANK, we ran out of data memory and couldn’t use the newer synthesis methods for the sound. We were using very early FM then, and we didn’t have the data to do the calculations, so we had no choice but to spend almost a full week manually changing all the parameters. “Do these numbers sound like a piano to you…?” It was really painstaking. Yamaha themselves didn’t yet have the parameters published for good sounds.

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The Yamaha YM3216 and Y8950 OPL FM sound chips were a core component of the arcade boards manufactured by developers including SNK, Taito, Data East and Nichibutsu in the mid to late ’80s; they were also used to power the Commodore 64’s Sound Expander module and the MSX’s MSX-Audio expansion cartridge, respectively.

—And yet the music from that era of games was really great. Though there were a lot of covers… (laughs)

Obada: The whole copyright situation was a mess back then, no one knew what was going on. Even a question as simple as “who owns the copyright to a game?” wasn’t clear at all. So we all copied each other.

—Some developers were pretty brazen about it. “This song sounds exactly like ‘Popcorn’!” (laughs) I guess that’s why a lot of those old games can’t be ported to modern systems today.

Obada: Yeah, that’s how it was back then, so we really didn’t pay much attention at all to copyright. I think it was Namco who first broached the subject? Which is ironic considering that Namco used to make copy-pcbs themselves.

—The entire game industry itself begin with copyright infringement, ever since Space Invaders.

Obada: Well, that’s because you could learn a lot by copying someone else’s work. I know Data East disassembled the pcb for Ikari Warriors in order to make a similar game. They ended up being unable to fully understand the code though, and just straight up copied the movement and actions. I just shrugged my shoulders. Even the slowdown was the same. I think that game was Heavy Barrel.

—I knew it! I thought the movement looked identical. (laughs)

Obada: The thing is, there was no way they were going to be able to understand the code. If you ask why, it’s because I made it in a way only I would be able to understand. No one else could understand it. Only I knew why certain data was in there.

In fact, Ikari was really made in the moment, and almost none of the code or data was preserved. The map data too—all that was lost, and when it came time to make the Famicom version, it caused a lot of problems for my team. They’d come and ask me, “I’m sorry to bother you Obada, but are you sure there’s nothing left… nothing at all?”, and I’d respond, “Nope.” They had no choice but to play the PCB manually, stop their characters midscreen, while another person took notes on the map layouts and such. That’s how the Famicom version was made.

—I bet the staff loved that. (laughs)

Obada: Well, people really saw Ikari as this crazy run and gun game anyway. I still remembered everything from when I made it, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.

—The planning docs were all in your head, so to speak.

Obada: It’s because I made so many changes to it myself. One time, I stayed at the office and worked through the night, and when the programmer arrived in the morning he found that I had changed all the data on my own. That kind of thing happened 2 or 3 times during Ikari Warriors. Then the programmers would change everything back, and it was like a whole different game again.

—(laughs) That’s surprising to hear.

Obada: I often snuck into their code and changed things and pissed them off, but it was fun. It created a good workflow, and the good parts of the game got left in, and the bad stuff got tossed out.

—I’m still surprised to hear you did all that as planner.

Obada: I had a bit of the hacker mindset. I’d get the code off the pcb and then rewrite it on my own. Actually, my first exposure to making games was examining the code from a Xevious pcb. That’s how I learned to make games, by extracting the code, rewriting it, and analyzing how it worked. I learned how to program Famicom games by doing the same thing, actually.

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Data East’s Heavy Barrel (1987), an Ikari clone from the aesthetic to the code to the loop lever controller, albeit one with DECO’s signature goofiness; later Data East loop lever games like Midnight Resistance would display a little more originality.

—That’s some real loose-cannon behavior there. (laughs)

Obada: I think everyone was imitating each other in the same way, making the same kind of things… but if that’s how the scene grows and expands, what’s the harm? In that kind of an environment the question isn’t about copyright or ownership, it’s about whether the idea is interesting or not, and if it was, you used it. It’s just data after all, numbers and letters.

—For the people making the games, I can see how they didn’t mind.

Obada: If another developer copied your idea, you just got back at them by copying their idea next. It was kind of like we were sending messages back and forth to each other. I really liked that.

—It all just canceled out. (laughs)

Obada: That’s why, to me, it wasn’t “games” that we were making. For us, we were conscious that we were creating a new media experience. It was a culture of “anything goes.” We were always trying to use the latest technology, whatever it was—like the new Yamaha FM synthesizers which had only just been invented.

—The Yamaha DX7 synthesizer was really expensive back then.

Obada: I mentioned it above, but TANK—it was actually the very first game to use FM sound. Anything that was new we tried to use, including the newest microchips from America. We also had a brand new workstation from Hewlett Packard, which I believe cost around 15 million yen.

—That definitely qualifies as being on the “cutting edge” of technology.

Obada: And that’s why I say we really didn’t see ourselves as simply making “games”.

At that time our games were being bootlegged in Korea, Europe, and Italy. The bootlegs of Ikari Warriors were particularly shoddy. They had lots of bugs, and there was one where the sprites weren’t properly erasing, so it looked like the upper half of the player sprite would be human, and the lower half would be a tank. We saw that and thought, “hey, that’s kind of a good idea?”, and that started us off on making Guevara (Guerilla War).

Guerrilla Wars (Guevara)

—Actually, there’s something I never understood about that game which I wanted to ask you first: why did you use Che Guevara as the protagonist…?

Obada: So, yeah… originally, I was making a game for SNK called “Shuto Koubousen” 2. In this game you were a police officer, and fighting breaks out in the middle of some fictional city.

—What kind of game was it?

Obada: At the end of each stage, there was a boss fight with an escaped prisoner. After you defeated them you arrested them. The first player was a male police officer, and the second player was a female police officer.

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Guevara’s arcade flyer, complete with hagiography on the game’s namesake. (source: Flyer Fever)

—Man, I really want play that now! But how did that become Guevara…?

Obada: I had design sketches, and had even finished a planning document, but when I brought them to the pitch meeting, the President didn’t even look at them, he just asked me, “Hey, do you know who Che Guevara is?” I said, “What’s that?”, and he replied “He fought in some wars a long time ago, why don’t you look him up.” What can I do, I thought. Despite the progress I had made on it, that pretty much sealed the fate of Shuto Koubousen, which was immediately changed over to Guevara.

—I guess you can call it an executive order. (laughs) But that must have been frustrating beyond belief, to suddenly change the game to be about Che Guevara. Did you have any ideas of where to even start?

Obada: Hmmm, well, the first thought that popped into my head was “At least I can still make it about war.” To be honest, we had been a little worried about that. We had received a lot of criticism from the PTA (National Parent-Teacher Association) after we made Ikari. We received a number of letters chastising us, saying “War is Bad!” and so forth. But after that meeting it was like, “Hey, the President says its alright, so we’re good!” and “Yes, we get to make another war game!” Plus we got to use tanks.

—Were the tanks also included at the President’s behest?

Obada: He does love tanks, it’s true. No matter what game we planned, he would always say “Let’s add tanks!” So naturally Shuto Koubousen had to have them too. That guy is just tank crazy.

—He seems to have a lot of quirks. (laughs) Was Che Guevara one of his interests too, then?

Obada: We didn’t have any materials on Che Guevara at the time. There was a single book translated into Japanese called “The Guerilla Manual” 3, so I’m guessing he knew about him from that or something.

—That one book was all you had? That doesn’t seem like enough at all.

Obada: There was one movie about him too, but it wasn’t released in Japan. Believe it or not, there were talks of sending us to Cuba since we couldn’t find anything ourselves. (laughs) We had no choice, we even called the Cuban Embassy.

—Wow, you went that far? (laughs) But since America and Cuba fought in the past, were you worried about the sales in the US?

Obada: That was something we talked about from the beginning. But hey, we put stars on the tanks. (laughs) The thing we fought the most about, though, was the opening scene with the line “Hail Che Guevara, Hero of the Revolution!” That was the one picture we knew was impossible to keep in.

—Towards the ending there’s the line, “Crush the American Foreign Power!” Stuff like that would surely have been incendiary.

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Which heroes, you ask? Guerrilla War, the US version of Guevara, opted to leave that particular detail and many others to the players’ imaginations.

Obada: Provocative stuff like that was mostly just our way to try and get the game stuck in players’ heads. The truth is, once the Laws Regulating Adult Businesses (fuueihou) went into effect, we started talking about ways to increase revenue: “If we don’t get people to spend 100 yen every three minutes, we’re done for!” Then the developers started being given all these conditions for the game, like “after 3 minutes of enemies, make sure there’s a boss!” and “make 16 different areas.”

Those changes to arcade games mostly came from trying to deal with the regulations. If games were going to be fragmented in this way, then we needed to have something interesting at every possible moment, and that’s where the cutscenes came from as well. So naturally, for the cutscenes in a game called Guevara, we had no choice but to write something about Che Guevara. It was all because of those regulations. Co-op play came about for the same reason too. The longform arcade experience itself was killed by the adult business regulations.

—If those regulations had never been passed, do you think your ideas would have been different?

Obada: I imagine it would have been an entirely different era, and consequently, an entirely different future.

—You changed the title of Guevara for the American release, right?

Obada: We titled it “Guerilla War”. The President of SNK America had been complaining to us about it, “The Cuban War is one that America lost to socialism, so please do not make this game!” He even said to stop because it was a “mark of shame for America.” (laughs)

—Guevara’s graphics were also quite impressive, but I also thought the enemies moved in a very individual way.

Obada: Guevara used the same method to create the sequence data (the enemy placement and positioning), and it was basically the same hardware. There were limitations too, like only having 8 enemies on screen at once, and a limited number of bullets. That being the case, we programmed the game so that depending on the order you killed enemies in, their attack patterns would change. We mixed “fleeing enemies” in there too, and enemies who would flee the minute they saw you riding in a tank. In a real war, there’s the people the stand and fight, but there’s also those that turn tail and run. We wanted to evoke that kind of a mood, like a real battlefield.

—The movement does feel very human.

Obada: That’s because we created a ton of data for that. Every single character had dozens of lines of code for their movement and attack patterns.

—Another change is that, in the Famicom version of TANK, you can only continue three times, but in Guevara you have infinite continues.

Obada: That change was made at the insistence of one of the younger developers. For me personally, I had an arcade sensibility, and no sense for console games. At the game center continues were basically equal to the number of 100 yen coins you inserted: in other words, they were a finite thing. So in the TANK port, that mentality got carried over to a console setting.

—Were there a lot of arguments with the staff about those kinds of things?

Obada: Yes, but when you want to make a game, or make a hit game even, you’ve got to be insistent about your vision. You must not bend your will to others, no matter what they say or who they are—even the company, even your staff. If you keep compromising and compromising, the result is that the game itself will be compromised, and as a developer, you’re headed down a bad path. I’ve seen that happen to many people. Although arguing for your vision does mean there will be “fights”, if you get to have your way, then you end up taking responsibility for the finished product. If that doesn’t happen, you won’t have any personal investment in how the game turns out. So it’s best to have those conflicts and hash it all out.

—Your planning meetings must have been scenes of great carnage, then.

Obada: Yeah. That’s because it was a world where you always needed to remember: “is this choice going to make people spend 100 yen?” I told that to everyone, whether they were brand new or had been there for half a year. Ignoring that question was a real danger, and instilling that awareness in people was my job. All new employees at SNK got this boot camp training in understanding how critical this was—it was like an overnight 20km forced march. Fall behind, and you’re out.

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Famicom Guevara’s hidden version of Sasuke vs. Commander: incomplete, but still impressive for a bonus game tacked to a two-month project. (source: The Cutting Room Floor)

—I thought the programming for the Famicom port of Guevara was really amazing. There were lots of nice touches, like the rotating backgrounds.

Obada: I had this friend named Kin-chan, who was a programmer. I asked him, “Can you port Guevara in two months? That’s all the time we’ve got.” He replied, “If you let me put Sasuke vs. Commander in, I’ll do it”, and I agreed.4

—So Sasuke was his payment! (laughs)

Obada: Next I asked him if he could rotate the backgrounds, and he said, “If we swap the sprites, anything is possible.” So then I had the designer draw up new tiles for all the different screen rotations.

—As before, you’re again able to kill the friendly units in Guevara…

Obada: The guys who are bound by ropes—we wanted to make sure the player could incinerate them with the flamethrower.

—But they’re supposed to be hostages…!

Obada: They are your allies, but it’s much sadder/pathetic when they get burned up, isn’t it? By the same token, we wanted people to feel a little bad when they ran into a chicken.

—Death by chicken. (laughs)

Obada: We were riding high then, and decided to add sheep, pigs, and that bikini woman! To a battlefield. We had some free memory left then, so it was like “sure, whatever”.

—Even after adding the extra tiles for the background rotations, you still had free space?

Obada: For most of our games back then, we would calculate the required memory banks and number of sprites before we began the development, so there wasn’t usually a lot of room leftover. With Guevara, though, someone must have miscalculated, because we ended up having more room than we expected.

—I can see you didn’t have to compromise with Guevara—it’s packed full of interesting little ideas.

Obada: The way I see it, when you’re making a game it’s common to start with 100 different ideas, which you then compress down to about 10 ideas. Those core 10 ideas get repeated 10 times, and that gives you enough substantive content to make a game. But seeing the same 10 ideas repeated dozens of times is boring because so many games are designed that way, so I wanted to do something different in Guevara. I wanted us to just add as many ideas as we wanted… but ultimately because of the Famicom’s limitations, a lot got left out.

One idea was that if a player takes too much damage, he panics and starts shooting his gun uncontrollably, spraying bullets everywhere. Another idea was to have really evil enemies who would use the hostages as shields if they took too much damage. (laughs)

—I do think the Famicom port of Guevara really pushed the limits of the hardware in some ways, though.

Obada: The Famicom hardware was a level playing field for all developers. That instilled a spirit of competition among us… you’d feel embarrassed if another developer took the lead and did something exceptional with the hardware. So you tried to do that first yourself.

With arcade games, in contrast, those hardware limitations were defined by the amount of budget available, which hardly felt fair. When a company can make a machine that they charge 500 yen for 1 play, that just feels unfair to the little guys. It felt like the size of the company determined so much of the game’s content.

More than just a mea culpa for the earlier, notoriously awful Ikari port by Micronics, Famicom Guevara is an inventive and thoughtful conversion of the arcade game that rates among the platform’s best (and most expensive) overhead run-and-gun titles. Skip to 13:00 to see stage 5’s neat rotation effect!

—Right. But on that point, with console games everyone is working from the same Famicom hardware, and the same ROM size limitations, too.

Obada: Guevara is a 2Mbit game. We split it in half: the programmers got 1Mbit, and the designers got to use the other.

—It sounds like there were in-house rivalries, in addition to the inter-company competition.

Obada: Exactly. And at that time, the Japanese game industry itself shared a common goal: “Crush America!” We wanted to tighten the noose around the American gaming market. Since everyone had that shared goal, we all worked very hard.

—And the Japanese game market did ultimately win out there.

Obada: We all thought America was sleeping on this opportunity, so now was the time to strike! And that really motivated us. Today there’s no such goal, because Japan is already at the top of the industry now. But I think we’re all being lulled into a false sense of security.

—Speaking of the industry, I believe words to describe game developers like “creator” didn’t exist yet. Very few developers had any media exposure.

Obada: I did interviews and things like that. Even though I was so busy I barely had time to sleep.

—(laughs) I guess there’s not a lot of time for such things when you’re busy with actual work.

Obada: When we were making Bermuda Triangle, I ate an insane amount of canned/packaged foods. The company provided these onigiri with caviar stuffed inside for free—all-you-can-eat.

—I’m not sure whether to call that luxurious, or pitiable. (laughs)

Obada: I also have many terrible stories about the Kentucky Fried Chicken party barrels we ate. (laughs) You see, our joyless diet of onigiri rations were occasionally interrupted by KFC party barrels, airdropped in by President Kawasaki himself. However, there were 4 staff members, and definitely not enough KFC to go around. Then we’d get to arguing about who was going to pass tonight. I remember one time a staff member, Gotou, spoke up timidly and said “President Kawasaki, would you mind…” and Kawasaki quickly snapped back “I want to eat too!”

—(laughs) You guys had a good President.

Obada: We were also put on lockdown in America too. I forget what game we were working on… we’ve been locked up in a variety of places, so I have a hard time remembering them all.

—(laughs) People may have seen the name “Mr OBA” in interviews or credits, but it sounds like no one knew the trials of the real Mr. Obada.

Obada: Yeah, but that’s because I never went out anyway. All I did was work. (laughs) Sleeping, eating, working… it all happened at that desk. In any event, though, I just loved computers. As long as I was allowed to mess around with computers, I had no complaints. And SNK gave me a really nice, expensive computer, right? That alone was like heaven to me then.

The Dawn of the Neo Geo

—The 1980s was the era of games like Guevara and Ikari. Do you feel like there was a stalling out after this period…?

Obada: Yeah, I think the industry itself got too large. I think it started around the time Dragon Quest came out, maybe? There was a moment when companies started thinking, “hey, if we just shovel money into promoting a game, we don’t need to spend so much on development. The marketing will carry it.” I felt like it put the developers in a really tough position.

—And arcade games never had TV commercials either.

Obada: We had to do marketing, but it was all done by us internally. Then when Gamest magazine came out, we ran a few ads there.

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SNK contributed ads, guides and even manga to Gamest from the very first issue and eventually began including full-color flyers, such as this flyer for Psycho Soldier, distributed as early as issue #8, May ’87.(source: Flyer Fever)

—The idea was to get people to come to the game centers?

Obada: There was a lot of self-promotion with games in those days. Another thing was with female enemies, we were forced to design them to be scantily clad.

Times have changed now, but back then there were an awful lot of people clamoring for that.

—Was that in the Japanese market? Or the American?

Obada: The American. In Japan there was the PTA, so we did what we could to keep them from complaining, as impossible as that was.

—I think a lot of gamers were attracted to whatever was taboo. But once console gaming took the spotlight and the market for “video games” got larger, many things started to change.

Obada: There was also the fact that once SNK got too big, things became more difficult. The management aspect started to become a nightmare. Games require a lot of focus to create, so when your team’s attention is getting divided, it’s very difficult. If you can’t spend 100% of your energy on development—if your focus gets taken by other things like marketing, administration, etc—it just all goes to hell.

—Death by a thousand cuts.

Obada: Ultimately, your game ceases to be a handcrafted work. Instead it’s just something churned out by a system. It’s like eating a meal that’s been prepared by a machine. And I’d say there’s a connection there with the acceleration of the industry. You know, as a developer, I want to make something that’s my own handiwork—something that I myself would want to play as a player. And I felt that if I couldn’t do that anymore, then I had no choice but to quit.

—Was there a particular incident or reason why you did end up quitting SNK?

Obada: Yeah, it was the Neo Geo. Originally the Neo Geo was Capcom’s idea. The design plans were brought to us by someone who worked for Capcom. Then, there was a time when about half of SNK’s staff was working for Capcom, and I don’t really know the details, but somehow or another, SNK ended up unveiling the Neo Geo at an announcement meeting, alongside four launch titles that had already been made. Then everyone at the company—developers and staff—had to quickly debug those games.

—SNK really did change direction then.

Obada: Right? There was a whole different mindset with the Neo Geo hardware, and personally, I didn’t really like that hardware. The format for the sprites was different, the way you handled them was different, the very way you thought about development was different. I started to think, “I can’t make games on this. I just don’t want to.”

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From one era to another: the US flyer for the classic Neo Geo MVS 4-slot cabinet, the standardized hardware system that arguably stifled innovation but nonetheless endured for well over a decade. (source: Flyer Fever)

—Up till then, the only limits on the hardware were how much money you wanted to spend, but now you were working with a fixed architecture.

Obada: It was a direct negation of all the games SNK had made up to that point. It would have been impossible for me to make Ikari on that hardware.

—And SNK pretty much stuck with the Neo Geo 100% from that point onwards.

Obada: Once we started with it I didn’t want to make games anymore. I would have loved to make a nice, big cockpit style arcade game, but this chintzy stuff was a no-go. I thought about quitting many times, but the truth is, I had already started to lose interest in games. That coincided with the beginning of my studies in CG—from here on out, I thought, I could do everything myself. That’s part of my current project, actually.

—If you zoom-out and look at the big picture, the history of games has taken some interesting turns.

Obada: The world I operated in was one which, at heart, was about the 100 yen coin. How many 100 yen coins could I get customers to spend…? That’s why I visited game centers. I went about once a week to see what kinds of games people were playing, which companies were popular, etc.

When you don’t have any money yourself, the game you’ll put 100 yen into is a game that has value to you. You play it because you want to. If you don’t have that feedback—if you’re playing the game because the company is paying you to test it, or you’re playing it for free, then you won’t learn anything. You won’t know if it has value.

—It sounds like as SNK got larger, that sense of internal control by the developers was lost.

Obada: Yeah. There’s always been in me the desire to create a really good game, or a really good movie. That’s why I left SNK, and I think it was the right decision. I didn’t want to have to keep hearing irrelevant complaints and concerns. The only kinds of complaints I’m beholden to now are the ones that actually matter to the game: “It’s interesting” or “It’s not interesting”. I don’t have to divide my attention or labor on things that don’t matter, and I can devote 100% to the work, be it a movie, a game, or something else entirely.

—I see all the video tapes you’ve got lining the walls here. They must make for great inspiration.

Obada: Yeah, I love the atmosphere of a room like this. I don’t think I’ll ever escape it. The capabilities of computers just keep getting better and better. But it’s the things we make with them that end up circulating around the globe, influencing people in ways you could never expect. I love that!

The things I’m making today—maybe no one will remember them in 10 years. But that’s fine. I’ll just make something new. All I was ever doing was making what seemed most interesting to me at the time, anyway. Maybe others won’t find it interesting at all, but I made it because I thought it was. And I think it’s far more fun to make things that push the envelope, that might offend people—guilty pleasures, so-to-speak…

Games, like movies, are products of the imagination, which is why I always want to make games that are like the dreams I have. Ikari was actually the same way. I had a dream and thought, “This would make a great game!”, and pretty much just copied the idea straight off. And I think that’s a very honest approach to making games. When you follow your dreams, you find things often align of their own accord. I also think there’s nothing wrong with trying and failing. They’re your dreams: what matters it that resolve, determination, and energy you get from following them… “I’m going to make a war game unlike any that’s ever come before!” Then when someone plays what you’ve made, your dream gets lodged in their memory, and carried far into the future.

—Dreams have that power, to connect the past and the future.

Obada: Yeah… and that very idea, too, may be nothing more than a dream I inherited from someone long ago. It’s likely that all my dreams, in fact, are bequeathed to me from the art people made in the past. The scary tv show I watched the other day was probably someone’s dream, that they then returned to me. And so the world keeps turning…

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From the Ikari arcade operator’s manual, an illustration demonstrating the operation of the rotary “loop lever” joystick.