Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji – 1988 Developer Interview

Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji – 1988 Developer Interview

In this 1988 interview for BEEP! magazine, the late Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji discusses his start at Taito and the conception of many of his early works, including the extremely popular Bubble Bobble and its spiritual followup, Rainbow Islands. Despite MTJ’s enduring reputation as a Taito mainstay, his tenure was relatively brief; less than a year after this interview took place, he left Taito to establish a career as a freelance game designer and would later establish a formal school of game design where he taught until his passing in 2008.

—Tell us about how you got into video games.

MTJ: I’d say my first encounter with video games probably begins in 1982 with Xevious. I was a college student then, and Xevious was my first opportunity to experience the allure of video games. I was hooked.

I had more than a few misgivings about Taito’s games from that era. So when I first joined Taito, I unironically thought things like “I’m going to change this company’s future!” I wanted to make something that would revolutionize the gaming world, which I felt had a lot of room for improvement. Looking back now, of course, it was a bit ridiculous and overambitious, but…

—What was it about Xevious that drew you in?

MTJ: The first time I saw it, it was the beautiful graphics that blew me away. Then when I actually played it, I felt a depth that I had not experienced before in video games—the story, the characters, the movements that had the quality of animation—all of that had a huge impact on driving me into video game development, I think.

—You mentioned you had misgivings about Taito’s games then… what aspects are you referring to?

MTJ: To be honest, Taito’s games then seemed kind of cheap and lame to me, both in terms of graphics and gameplay. They didn’t have much style or sense. Compared with Namco’s offerings, they were very much lagging behind. That’s precisely why I harbored these ambitions and dreams, of doing something to turn things around at Taito.

Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji (1988)

—What were some of your ideas, of how to change things at Taito?

MTJ: My first big goal was simply wanting to make a Taito game that wouldn’t feel inferior to Namco. Basically I just wanted to make better games.

—Did you ever think about joining Namco instead? Was it hard choosing between the two when you were first trying to get hired?

MTJ: Actually, I did think about going over to Namco at one point. But when the possibility actually arose, I felt I had more opportunities here at Taito, so I stayed. Also, because I felt Taito’s games weren’t up to snuff, it actually made me want to challenge myself and my abilities to see if I could change that.

—Tell us about the first games you made at Taito.

MTJ: As soon as I was hired, I got entrusted with a new project: making a multiplayer arcade game. Inside I was thinking, “Uh, this feels like too much to give me right away!”, but I was also happy to be given so much responsibility, so I threw myself into the development. I felt like I had to give it my all. That game was Super Dead Heat.

My objective with Super Dead Heat was to make a game where players could compete seriously with each other, but a lot of the developers and playtesters seemed to enjoy just fighting it out rough-and-tumble style, trying to block the other cars… or when the first three cars passed the finish line, they’d all go back and try to harass the last car and push him offscreen.

My second game, a STG called Halley’s Comet, started from a conversation we had with the President of Taito. “Everyone’s hyped up about Halley’s Comet passing by soon! Hey, do you think we could make a game that’s based on Halley’s Comet somehow…?!”

This game was important to me because it marked the beginning of my development philosophy of “thrills and pleasures.”1 The pcb hardware for Halley’s Comet was all-around quite underpowered, and we had to work within some serious limitations. Because of that we spent an inordinate, tear-inducing effort on making the background look like it was scrolling (the pcb had no hardware scrolling functionality).

MTJ’s Super Dead Heat (1985) was notable for its unique four-monitor cocktail enclosure; each player would select a portion of the track layout before the race, with the layouts on each monitor connecting to form an ultra-large overhead race track.

—Why did you decide on that theme, “thrills and pleasures”?

MTJ: By this time (1985/1986), video games had adopted a variety of different gameplay mechanics, but ultimately, they could all be said to belong to either “thrills” or “pleasures”. After much thinking, I realized in those days that neither thrills nor pleasures should be allowed to dominate a game: good gameplay requires there be a balance between them. That would be the ideal kind of game, I thought. By “balance”, however, I didn’t mean that every section of a game should always be perfectly balanced between the two—some sections should be all about thrills, while others are more relaxing and just about having fun. But as a whole, viewing the game experience over time, there needed to be balance between the two. All the games I’ve made have followed that philosophy ever since Halley’s Comet.

—How did Bubble Bobble get started?

MTJ: Well, I’d done a racing game now, and a shooting game, so now I thought I’d try my hand at a comical game! And that game was Bubble Bobble.

How could I, practically speaking, improve and iterate on this new design philosophy of mine? I was always thinking about that question. On Bubble Bobble I worked hard to really push my ideas to the limits. In that sense, Bubble Bobble was probably one of the games I put the most thought into—I honestly lost sleep thinking about how to make it better, better, better. For me personally, it’s a very deep, memorable game.

—I think your concept of “thrills” and “pleasures” is easy for me to imagine with, say, a STG game, but how did it work for puzzle games like Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Island? Did you have to change those principles for them?

MTJ: No, they stayed exactly the same. “Pleasure” in Bubble Bobble comes from the bubble mechanic. The reason I selected bubbles is for the simple reason that I thought it would be really fun to have a screen full of bubbles everywhere. When you think “bubbles”, of course, you think of popping or bursting bubbles, and that bursting action is tied into my idea of “pleasure” gameplay.

—How did you come up with the idea for using bubbles, originally?

MTJ: In my case, mechanics like the bubbles, or the rainbows in Rainbow Island—they don’t come to me in a sudden flash of inspiration. I have to think about them systematically. With Bubble Bobble, my first, most basic development concept was to make a game that girls could enjoy. OK then, if it’s girls we’re talking about, I thought, well, what kind of things do young girls like to draw and sketch? I actually made a list of over 100 different examples. From those I drilled down and chose the ones that seemed like they’d catch people’s eye. Then I refined them further, and whittled it down to a few ideas that I would want to work with in a video game.

The result of that process of elimination was bubbles! In the beginning, also, the player characters were not dinosaurs. My first idea was robots that had a spike on top of their heads, which I imagined them using to pop the bubbles. But they didn’t look cool at all, and in the process of thinking up alternative characters with some kind of spike, the idea of dinosaurs came to me. And dinosaurs had ridges/plates along their back, so this could be perfect, I thought! Anyway, you can see how I got from bubbles to my idea for dinosaurs, but that was the kind of process I used, and from that basis, I came up with all sorts of ideas which I’d write down on paper as soon as they came to me.

One of many English-language flyers for Bubble Bobble (1986); despite its massive popularity with players and huge success across various home conversions, arcade operators were ambivalent about the game due to its potentially long play time off a single coin.

—Can you tell us next about Rainbow Islands?

MTJ: It was the game I made right after Bubble Bobble, and I didn’t want it to feel inferior to it, so I really wracked my brain coming up with new ideas. I wanted the single “rainbow” mechanic to fulfill a diverse set of functions, including movement, attack, defense, and escape.

By the way, for all the games I’ve made so far, I have my own personal regrets and dissatisfactions about each of them. Sometimes I add things which I think are going to make the game more fun, only to have them totally backfire on me. I see every game I make as a chance to learn, and I hope each game I make will have more refreshingly creative ideas than the last.

—From our perspective as players, strategic puzzle games like Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Island seem like they must be exceedingly difficult to create. How is it for you as the developer?

MTJ: The number of games I’ve created is still few, but even so, they’ve been very mentally taxing to make. During a development, I’ll lie down on my futon for bed, but suddenly an idea will come to me, and I’ll get out a pad of paper to write it down so I don’t forget. But once my brain gets cracking like that and the ideas start flowing, before I know it it’s morning and I’ve spent the whole night like that, and my room is littered with memos and notes everywhere. That happened a lot. But I feel like when you aim to make a comical game, if you don’t put in that level of effort, it won’t come off.

—Compared with your peers, what are some of the areas you put the most effort in personally, as a developer?

MTJ: For me, it’s not very complicated: I’m just working tirelessly behind the scenes, steadily building up my ideas.

—By the way, when you are at your desk, what kind of work are you doing?

MTJ: In my case, the only times I’m at my desk are when I’m working on a new game plan, or I’m doing some kind of administrative or office work. I also help draw the characters and sprites for our games, so once my ideas are solid, I head off to the computers and use the animation development tools there to create the actual sprites. I sometimes visit the local game centers to do market research too, and hear the opinions of actual players.

The Mega Drive port pictured here is one of the very few conversions of the Extra revision, and even more recent emulated versions tend to defer to the original arcade ROM.

—You mentioned some of your ideas “backfiring” a moment ago, but can you give us a concrete example?

MTJ: In Rainbow Island, I thought it would be a good idea to include the strongest equipment in the game in a secret stage. But that equipment makes the game way too easy and destroys the balance. I regret adding it now. For that and other reasons, I’m planning to include an Extra Version for hardcore players the next time we swap ROMs. It makes it so that if you don’t take the special equipment, your score rate continues to go up.

—Interesting. But I can see a danger there, of going down that path of catering to hardcore players—if done poorly, you could end up with something only the most skilled and hardcore can enjoy.

MTJ: That is very true. It’s something I’ve been thinking about myself. Recently I’ve had more chances to speak with “hardcore” players, and it has indeed led me to think that I might need to make a slight course correction in my future game designs.

—When can we expect Bubble Bobble 3,2 by the way? Any rumors to share?

MTJ: Hmm, yeah, nothing to share yet I’m afraid… I definitely want to do it. Until the timing is right, I plan to keep my ideas for it warm. There’s also a lot of other things I want to try my hand at now, so I probably won’t turn to Bubble Bobble 3 until some of those are out of the way.

—Speaking of which, what kind of things are you working on right now?

MTJ: Well, it’s all related to the next game(s) I’m hoping to develop, so it’s top secret… for now, I can say that I want my next game to be a passion project—the kind of project I can have absolute conviction in even if others don’t see what’s great about it.

—Right now in the video game industry, taikan games3 are very popular. Would you be interested in developing one of those?

MTJ: They’re extremely interesting to me, and it’s a genre I’d love to challenge myself in.

—Some people have been saying that traditional tabletop arcade games are in decline, and soon everything will be about large taikan games. What do you think about that?

MTJ: Well, beyond that even, I often hear people saying how the entire industry is in decline, but I don’t think so. However, I do think if we, as developers, don’t all pull together and work our hardest, then that may well happen. So it makes me feel a certain pressure to strive all the harder.

So if you asked me what I think the future of arcade games looks like, I think taikan games and regular arcade games will continue to co-exist, but with advances in technology, video games, like everything else, will continue to change and evolve. What shape those changes will take, I can’t say, but looking at the rapid evolution of technology taking place right now, if something like superconductivity ever becomes commonplace, perhaps future games will involve floating in mid-air! Who knows what will become ordinary tomorrow, but one thing is for sure, by hook or by crook there will be new games and new entertainment. I don’t think that games are going anywhere, nor do I want them to.

—From your perspective, how do you think Taito will evolve in the future?

MTJ: As a company, I know they want to keep presenting players with more fun, more enjoyable experiences. And as a developer, of course I want them to keep making video games, but I also want Taito to take a broader perspective and be on the lookout for ways to excite and entertain people beyond video games, too.

—Right now your specialty is working in game design, but what do you think about consoles like the Famicom and MSX?

MTJ: Right now, I think I’d like to keep going with arcade game development. Because of the hardware limitations of the Famicom and MSX, I think it would be tough to realize my ideas there. And since I’ve expended a lot of effort to get this far at Taito and be in the privileged position to work on what I want, I’d like to use this chance to challenge myself and pursue all the possibilities I can here. So yeah, I think I’ll be continuing on arcade games like this for awhile.

Other games designed by MTJ during his final years at Taito: the procedurally-generated, trackball-controlled dragon game Syvalion (left) and Volfied, a sci-fi reinvention of Quix (right). MTJ left Taito in late 1989 and worked as a freelancer on several released and unreleased games, including UPL’s Omega Fighter, Tengen’s Magical Puzzle Popils, Namco’s Tinkle Pit, Kaneko’s Kyuukyoku! PC Genjin and Sega’s SEGASonic Bros.

—Finally, please give a message to people who want to become game designers in the future, as well as those who have played and enjoyed your games.

MTJ: To the aspiring game designers, the first thing I would say is that coming up with ideas for games is not as easy as many of you think it is! To be a developer, you of course need a love for games and an analytical mind, but to that one must also add the creativity to bring forth new ideas (and many of them) from nothing. I think a designer should also have above-average passion and curiosity, and a philosophy or “policy” toward game design that is their own.

What is the joy of game design? I think it’s seeing your own ideas come to life on screen, seeing them take shape and enter the real world, and seeing players enjoy the finished product… planning can be very difficult, but if you’re someone with undaunted determination—”I’m doing this!“—then I would love to have you in this industry. Let’s give it our all together!

Finally, to those who have played my games, I hope to continue making fresh, creative games, so if you see one of my works in the game center, be sure to give it a spin. And thank you for all the support you’ve shown us!

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  1. The Japanese is “suriru to kaikan.” suriru is literally thrills, while kaikan is a bit more slippery to describe. It essentially means “fun” or “pleasure”, but in context here, and in contrast to the stress, danger, and excitement of “thrills”, kaikan is the simple fun, relaxing, no-pressure aspects of a game. In STGs, for example, developers will often describe the experience of blowing up enemy after enemy as “kaikan”.

  2. Rainbow Islands bears the subtitle “Story of Bubble Bobble II”, and several subsequent Bubble Bobble or Bubble Bobble-adjacent games would also receive confusing or contradictory designations; the current canonically recognized “Bubble Bobble 2” is 1994’s Bubble Symphony, with 1996’s Bubble Memories being “Bubble Bobble 3”.

  3. Big arcade games that physically engage the whole body in some way. Sega popularized the genre with classics like Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner.

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