Xevious – Developer Interview Collection
with designer Masanobu Endou
What I wanted to try doing with Xevious was, for the first time, to give a video game a consistent world and setting. Also, within the limitations of the existing hardware, I wanted to create high-quality sprites. Finally, I wanted a story that wouldn’t just be some tacked-on extra, but could actually stand on its own merits.
This “experiment”, if you will, was a totally new way to approach making a game. It was closer to the way anime and movie creators think.
Masanobu Endou in 1985.
As a result it resonated with the “anime generation,” and Xevious, which had actually been a somewhat contentious title within Namco, ushered in a new wave of video games. A less public result was that after Xevious, the culture of game magazines like Beep also grew rapidly.
In the history of music, it’s said that the Beatles widened the scope of rock, and the Rolling Stones then took it further and deeper; in the history of video games, I think that Space Invaders and Galaga widened the scope of games, and Xevious took the baton and went further with it.
I joined Namco right after Rally X had been released. At that time Konami had just put out Scramble, and our marketing department at Namco ordered us to make “a 2-button scrolling STG.” Thus we began development of Xevious. Actually, you might be able to guess this by looking at the game in action, but the player ship in Xevious was originally a helicopter, and the setting of the game was the Vietnam War. Later, however, there was a personnel reshuffling and my senior colleague and original Xevious planner quit the Xevious project in the middle, and I then became the head designer. At the time I had been doing sprite design, but programming was fun to me too, so I quickly learned it on-the-job. (laughs)
The quality and presence of the sprites in Xevious actually had less to do with the hardware being able to put out a lot of colors, and more to do with the careful way we used different shades of grey. I was influenced by raytracing.
Also, management at Namco had told me “These enemy names are too difficult to read. Change them!”, but my boss gave my ideas his stamp of approval: “This is going to be a hit. No matter what they tell you, have confidence and believe in yourself.” After that I didn’t budge an inch! Namco didn’t really understand the point of having “hidden characters” like the Sol, either, but I just told them “oh, that’s a bug…” and snuck it in. (laughs)
I do have one regret with Xevious, and that’s the fact that you can play it forever on a single 100 yen coin. I remember I resolved to make a proper ending for my next game. (laughs) Arcade games would loop endlessly if you didn’t die, so I wanted to create a real ending that would act as a forced stopping point. I thought that if the ending tied into the story and gave the player a sense of completion and achievement, then no one would mind.
After Xevious, I went on a business training trip to America, and there I bought a copy of the tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons. It had a big impact on me. I was really into Wizardry on the Apple II back then too. I then tried making an action rpg—what would later become The Return of Ishtar. But at this time, I felt the RPG elements were too strong, so I decided to go back and make something more action-focused, and that game turned out ultimately to be The Tower of Druaga. Druaga was a conversion of the Mappy pcb hardware, which is why the screen was vertically oriented.
I’m glad that Tower of Druaga was loved by fans, but the fact that the game made players more paranoid about looking for secrets, and that it put a new emphasis on “clearing” a game are two consequences I’ve had time to reflect on. Was it really setting a good example for other games…? On the other hand, thanks to Druaga, the community and culture of notebook sharing (where arcade players shared their secrets and tips) was born, so that was a good thing.
If a bonafide Xevious sequel were ever to be made, I would definitely want to be involved. I’ve already got a good idea for Xevious 2 in my head, too: you’d fly to Planet Xevious and strike back against the Oomoto boss! (laughs)
Xevious was planned with a marketing perspective: we thought a scrolling, two-button game would be a hit. In that sense, it began as a very standard game in which we were trying to follow the market. The goal, then, wasn’t to program a super-difficult game, but rather something that would be ok for new players too. I worked with a senior colleague who became my teacher, and he had me do a wide variety of tasks: he had created the basic shape and “bones” of the game, and I went about fleshing everything out.
For example, I tried to figure out how to depict a quadrupedal tank with sprites. I also tried to figure out how I could make the Bacura enemies—the grey metal walls—appear to be rotating just by changing the light gradient on them. As the development went on, I was even trying to figure out how I could turn Xevious into an anime.. you know, when you’re young, you attack everything with full-force. (laughs)
Only two weeks after Xevious had been released to arcades, I heard that someone had counterstopped it. I was honestly a little scared by how good that player was. (laughs) I then received a 6-hour long video from the player, Yasuhiro Ohori, who later became the President of Matrix Software. I believe he was still a high school student at that time. This teenager with a pointy shaved head was beaming with pride as he told me, “I cleared this game! I counterstopped it!” Then we watched his video and talked. I told him how amazing it was. I didn’t really have much to say past that. (laughs) He asked if he could write about it. Namco didn’t have a problem with it, so he went and eventually published the strategy guide, “How to get 10 Million Points in Xevious.” 1
We ended up adding a target for when you fire at a ground enemies. I had three colors to work with on the target It occurred to me that I could use those colors to make it flash. I then coded it so that touching an enemy with the target would make it flash, as a sort of way to tell the player “fire!” Then I got to thinking: what if I made it flash, telling players to fire, but there was no enemy visible…? That was how I came up with the idea for the invisible Sol enemies. But it really pissed off Namco. (laughs) STG games were supposed to be something you played to blow off stress and have a good time, and here I’d gone and added an enemy you couldn’t even see! And being a ground-based enemy, you couldn’t just destroy it right away. They complained to me, “why did you add something that departs from our concept for this game?”
As for the special flags, those were from New Rally X, a game I personally loved, but which had been overshadowed in the market by Pac-Man. I added the Special Flags because I wanted to make everyone to take more notice of them in Rally X! I was kind of being sarcastic when I added them. A lot of things I created came from that contrarian spirit, actually.
“Even one’s enemies have honor” —once I had that idea, the story and setting of Xevious all came to me. Of course I cribbed that theme from Space Runaway Ideon. (laughs)
Another theme I had in mind was, “is there anything in space that is truly alien…?” I went from the idea of an alien civilization, to an ancient civilization. If an ancient civilization left Earth and came back after a long period, they’d appear to us as aliens, wouldn’t they?
Take actual ancient languages, for instance, there’s lots of it that’s “alien” and still undecipherable to us. From that I started thinking that if language and words convey a culture and civilization, then I could just make my own up for Xevious’ world. I started assigning random sounds different vocabulary meanings, splitting the work up with my senior colleague. Then once we had a very basic vocabulary, we started combining the sounds together, making more complex words, and giving names to enemies and things in Xevious.