Data East – 2002 Round Table Interview

Data East – 2002 Round Table Interview

In this round table interview first published in the 2002 book Chou Arcade, three developers (and one PR rep) share their memories of arcade development at Data East in the late 80s and early 90s. Unfortunately, they opted for anonymity and only their initials are given here. It’s a bit of a whirlwind tour through the latter days of Data East, but Karnov and Atomic Runner Chelnov get some special attention.

—Well, let’s start off by having everyone introduce themselves and the titles of the games they worked on.

H-san: I was the development manager at Data East. Should I start listing all our games from the Space Invaders period…?

—No, starting from the Data East Cassette era should be fine. (laughs)

N-san: I did programming for games like Karnov, Midnight Resistance, and Trio the Punch.

—Wow, an impressive lineup! You were the key players supporting Data East’s games in the late 80s.

K-san: I did programming for B-Wing, Thunder Zone (Desert Assault), and others. I also created the laserdisc game Thunder Storm (Cobra Command).

T-san: I wasn’t a developer, but I did advertising and marketing at Data East. I joined right around the time K-san left; I think we only overlapped briefly. I was at Data East till about 1995.

—Looks like we’ve got an inclusive all-star roster here today! Thank you all for coming. Well, let’s get to it then. Of everyone here, H-san, it sounds like you were witness to the earliest days of Data East.

H-san: Yeah. Before that I was working in a different industry. One day I thought, “games… why not?” and I joined Data East. But I quickly found out it was much more difficult than I had thought. Even though it wasn’t my field, they made me do programming. (laughs) Later I worked for many years as the development manager.

K-san: I had a similar experience. My major in college was electrical engineering, but when I joined Data East they had me do everything, from creating the actual PCB hardware to programming, and even hardware maintenance. Nowadays everyone’s work is very clearly divided, but back then there wasn’t a distinction between hardware and software. I also made many Deco Cassette games.

—The Data East Cassette hardware allowed you to play different games by swapping the cassette out. It was a forerunner of the “system xx” style pcb boards. How were the sales?

H-san: Yeah, they sold well. All the ones with double digits were especially successful. (laughs)1

T-san: (pulls out a printout from his bag) I made this list of all the DECO games. Each game had a number.

DECO Cassette flyer

—Ah, I see now, the titles with double digits were successes you say? (laughs)

H-san: This “Lock n’ Chase” game was popular, I remember. “Pro Tennis” also did well.

N-san: Oh, “Explorer”… we made that one too.

—(looking at the list) There’s a lot of Western titles, aren’t there? I see Boulder Dash was also ported. (laughs)

H-san: There were a lot, weren’t there? It ended up not happening, but there were plans to port Lemmings as well.

—Really? That game seems like it’s more suited for playing at home, where you can take your time and think things through. Almost like the opposite of an arcade game.

K-san: The Western developers got pretty far in developing it. At some point they probably realized it was impossible, and it ended up getting shelved.

—The DECO Cassette system continued until 1985. After that, you switched to dedicated PCB hardware for each game. What was the reason for the change?

H-san: Copy protection. If we upped our hardware specs, the pirate market wouldn’t be able to keep up with copies.

K-san: Zaviga was the first game, right?

H-san: Yeah, that one was a big hit. We got the entire staff at Data East involved in producing the PCB hardware. (laughs)

—Zaviga is very popular even today. Both it and B-Wing are STGs with interesting game systems. Data East’s games at that time used a unique color palette though. Was there some kind of policy at Data East about using those colors? (laughs)

T-san: They were really dull, weren’t they. (laughs) Compared with other companies, it really stands out how dark they were.

H-san: It was a problem internally at Data East, too. People were asking “why are the colors on our pcbs so dark?” But the hardware guys were obstinate. They’d come back and say “it must be a software problem.” So the issue never got properly addressed.

Dark Seal, DECO’s fantasy action game.

—It’s the heavy, oppressive atmosphere of games like Darwin 4078 and Dark Seal that really captures the feel of those rusty DECO colors, for me. (laughs) Moving on, we come to the era of Data East games like Captain Silver.

H-san: Wow, you sure know youre stuff! Captain Silver didn’t sell very well, and there were very few boards in circulation. (laughs)

—Yeah, the first time I got to play Captain Silver was actually on the Sega Mark III console port. The port was considered a great game. But the insanity of the arcade version was really something else. (laughs)

N-san: With those cats falling down on you, yeah. (laughs)

—You’re supposed to be a pirate, and yet you can drown in a water fountain, and an apple falling from a tree means instant death. (laughs) That weirdness also comes through in Karnov.

N-san: Our initial concept for a game was always pretty vague, but as we’d be making it, all these ideas would come to us.

—I mean, even if you did somehow think up a story with a bald, shirtless old man as the hero, normally that wouldn’t be the kind of thing you’d make into a game. (laughs)

K-san: Our image of Karnov was based off someone: he was the spitting image of a certain boss at Data East.

—You mean the real Karnov was sitting at a desk across from you at work? (laughs)

H-san: His body type was exactly the same too. After the game was released, he found out what we had done and got really angry. (laughs) Karnov was a hit though. It was our first board to use the 68000 processor as well.

—And it was the first game to feature the famous “DECO Jump”! It wasn’t based on a parabolic arc, but went straight up and then straight down again at a 45 degree angle. The other day I asked Nakamura, the designer for Edward Randy, to verify a rumor I heard that the programmers didn’t know trigonometry. “It said he should jump that way in the initial planning document,” he replied. (laughs)

K-san: Yeah, all the games I worked on, we followed the initial design documents unswervingly. We placed our full confidence in them. (laughs)

The Japanese flyer for Karnov.

—That’s one of the amazing things about Data East, that regardless of the game—be it Karnov, Captain Silver, or whatever—you were allowed to make the game the way the initial planning documents were written. With other companies, you’d think there’d be meddling from someone in the company at some point along the way…

H-san: Yeah, well, we never listened to our bosses anyway. (laughs) In any event we never lacked for enthusiasm. If one of our programmers was going on about an idea for a new game, and he showed our bosses the planning documents, they couldn’t understand what the hell kind of game it was anyway. So they had no choice but to leave it all in our hands!

—Even so, getting something like Chelnov approved must have taken a lot of guts! The title alone feels some challenge to the powers-that-be at Data East. (laughs)

N-san: In the beginning the game had a different name. Then, while we were developing it under that title, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant became a hot topic, and we thought, hey, let’s change the name to Chelnov.

—You changed it on purpose?! (laughs)

T-san: This was before the accident, of course. There was some backstory where Chelnov and Karnov were brothers. See, they were both Russian after all.

—The title was certainly striking, but the content of the game itself was very fresh. Clay dolls, dragons, and the vine-covered backgrounds… it was overflowing with rich visuals.

H-san: From what I heard of the development, it was all looking good at first, but somehow it just wasn’t coming together as a game.

N-san: Yeah, someone realized things weren’t working, so they brought in three new guys and had them remake the game.

—What?! They redid everything, and with new employees no less? That’s hard to believe, considering how polished the final version of Chelnov looks.

H-san: Well, that’s because we didn’t really let them make it on their own, right? We kind of kept them in the dark too. (laughs)

—I’m guessing you didn’t let them raise any concerns either, like “why does Chernov only move forward?” (laughs)

H-san: The tough thing about scrolling games then was that if you died you’d be sent back to the beginning of the stage and have to re-do everything all over. Bad players would never be able to get any further in the game.

The clay doll boss of stage 2 from Chelnov.

T-san: That’s why in Chelnov, when you die you advance forward a little.

K-san: But wasn’t that done because the PCB hardware couldn’t store all the data from where you were killed? (laughs) Like which enemies were killed and which were not. We didn’t have the memory to store all that data so we couldn’t have players go back.

—You mean that feature of Chelnov was added because the old hardware couldn’t handle the memory…?

T-san: Huh? What are you talking about? In Karnov we sent the players back.

N-san: There was plenty of memory, that wasn’t the problem. It was just annoying to program, so… (laughs)

Everyone: (laughs)

—What led to that legendary TV spot about Chelnov?

H-san: Ah, that. When the Chernobyl Plant accident occurred, someone from a TV station came to interview me.

—Oh, you were the actual person who appeared on that TV segment!

H-san: She recorded a clip of me politely explaining DECO’s circumstances as regards Chelnov. But in the actual broadcast, what was recorded got added to some very negative opinion piece on video games, with Shigeru Izutani adding his angry comment “what the hell is this trash?”

—I like Izutani myself, but it seemed he didn’t have any love for games. (bitter laugh) It was a difficult time for games then, what with all the morality laws being proposed.

H-san: We objected of course. The television station did apologize to us, but it was just a boilerplate typed form, the kind they use for any standard apology.

In complete contrast with that experience, “Close Up Gendai” also did a report on us. It was an honest report. They simply broadcast the contents of our interview.

—Ah, you were on NHK too. (laughs)

H-san: Yes, I was. The theme of the feature was “Video Games and Russian Business,” and they highlighted our puzzle game, Magical Drop.

—Eh? What connection is there between Magical Drop and Russia?

H-san: Basically, that it was like Tetris, and how the idea for that game came from a Russian scientist.

—The roots of Magical Drop go back to Russia, I see.

H-san: Just the very initial roots, yeah. Of course, the completed game bears no trace of that initial model. Really just the idea of moving and hitting these rocks… everything else was our completely original system. For the first game we did attach a copyright symbol and pay a fee for the intellectual property rights, though.

T-san: Tetris gave us a tiny hint, but we took that and expanded a whole new game on it. The percentage we paid was probably really small.

—Yeah, you can’t feel a speck of Russia in Magical Drop—it’s Japanese through and through. (laughs) In the latter half of the 80s, the image of a “DECO game” shifted from the previous surrealism to that macho one-upmanship of the time. I think every DECO game from that period had the President of the United States appear in the ending. (laughs)

T-san: (everyone laughs) You’re right, every game has the President. (laughs) Robocop was that way, and Thunder Zone and Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja too… you’re always saving the President.

—I bet American players were happy about that. In Chelnov you battle atop the Statue of Liberty, too.

H-san: We were one step ahead of Hollywood. (laughs)

The famous opening lines of Bad Dudes.

—Recently in the movie Independence Day the President himself fights. I’m actually kind of shocked that there was never a DECO game featuring the President as the hero. (laughs)

H-san: We were ahead of our time. Everyone is saying it, but all these action games coming out on the market now were preceded by similar DECO games many years before. But back then our games didn’t sell. (laughs)

—Don’t you think Midnight Resistance was also a forerunner of action games today, with its weapon-swapping feature?

T-san: Yeah, and as a bonus you could use the rotary joystick to control your firing angle. And then there was the whole intro, with that text “DAD. MOM. SIS. PLEASE BE CAREFUL”

H-san: The first time I saw that suddenly flash on the intro screen, I was really surprised, “huh, what the hell was that?” (laughs)

—It was like, “is this Kamen Rider V3?” At the end you’re forced to choose between taking a weapon or saving your family.

T-san: It makes sense when you think about the story. (laughs)

—The best weapon in that game was the flamethrower. It appears in Thunder Zone too. I like how it burns up anything and everything: people, warships, even fighters jets!

H-san: Those sorts of outrageous ideas were usually brought to us by staff who didn’t have much to do with the initial planning documents. The people who created Dark Seal also didn’t write a planning document for it either.

—Yeah, despite having elves, magic users, and the like, that game has almost none of the light touch of a Japanese anime. It’s a bonafide dark fantasy in the Western style. The Great Ragtime Show (Boogie Wings) is another DECO game overflowing with crazy little details, like that hook your biplane uses to grab robots, giraffes, elephants…

K-san: That’s that plane game jampacked with all the super detailed graphics, right? I think that came out after Edward Randy.

The Thunder Zone flyer, a prime example of DECO “manliness”

—Those are some very memorable games.

H-san: Not a single one of our truly memorable games was a commercial success. (bitter laugh) The management at Data East used to complain about the programmers too: “what the hell are they doing making games like that!” But if a game just had a big name attached to it like Robocop, it always sold well.

—And yet Data East’s games were always included in things like the “Scitron Video Game Amusement Yearly Almanac” and Gamest’s yearly top 10 lists, so I always got the impression they were selling well.

H-san: Lots of people were talking about Edward Randy, it’s true, but we hardly sold any boards. And after we all had stayed up all night before the amusement expo to finish it… I worked on that game too, for 2 or 3 days.

T-san: Nakamura, the designer for Edward Randy, was saying that Dragon Gun sold the best out of all his games.

N-san: I remember seeing that one and thinking, “there he goes again, making another one of those games.” (laughs)

K-san: There’s no guarantee that a good game will have good sales, sadly.

H-san: I remember Nakamura saying “I want to make a game where the gun is shaped like a Dragon.” How much do you suppose it cost to produce that thing? (laughs)

T-san: Didn’t one of the companies involved ask us create a CG movie for that game too?2

H-san: Yeah. And it was surprising how expensive it was to make. The entire movie has to be stored on ROM chips.

N-san: Those ROM chips will eat right through your budget. (laughs)

—So that very expensive CG movie got put on very expensive ROM chips? (laughs)

H-san: The management was pissed at us. “What the hell is wrong with you guys?! We’ll never make any profits if you keep pulling stunts like this!” (laughs)

—The finished game stood out as something uncommon, but there probably aren’t that many players with such refined taste. (laughs) I imagine you started out aiming for something with a commercial, catchy hook.

H-san: To put it kindly, we all had something of an artistic bent. From management’s perspective these kinds of games weren’t going to sell. They used to say about us, “their big hit will come”… but I guess you can’t really predict those things.

—Which of your arcade games sold the best?

H-san: Karate Champ. We sold that as a board+cabinet set, and it was our most successful. I think in two months we shipped 10,000 units? There were some major troubles on the production side too. (laughs)

—The sequel “Karate Champ — Player vs Player” was a pioneer in vs. fighting games, too.

H-san: We asked ourselves, what was the essence of a “game”? Our answer: the will to fight. Yeah, it really was a progenitor of the vs. fighting genre.

K-san: It’s a different genre, but the shooting game Makyou Senshi (Gondomania) was actually the first game where we pulled off 2P simultaneous player. It was a real pain in the ass to make though. (laughs)

Karate Champ, Deco’s most commercially successful arcade game.

—This sounds like what you were saying earlier, about not wanting to program the checkpoints in Chelnov. (laughs)

K-san: The difficulty was that with two players, the processing load was doubled, right? Our boss at the time asked us to make a game with 2P simultaneous play, where a second player could join in at any time. When we asked him why he wanted this, he replied: “To make twice as much money!” (laughs)

Everyone: (laughs)

H-san: Americans have no hesitation about joining another player’s game, even if that person is a stranger. I think he saw that and got the idea.

—That’s good thinking. In Japan interrupting a stranger’s game like that would be out of the question. It’s interesting the systems developers would come up with to try and make things profitable for the game center.

H-san: Well, you know, it goes without saying that we were trying to create something fun for players. But beyond that we also had to get the game center owners to purchase our pcbs. (laughs)

—Since SNK’s Ikari Warriors was such a big hit, there were a lot of arcade cabinets with that special rotary joystick control panel out in the market. Did that make it easier for you to sell your rotary joystick games, like Heavy Barrel? (laughs)

H-san: SNK had a patent on those, so we had to use their data. We also had a very good relationship with SNK, though.

—It’s impressive, the breadth of talent and the very diverse staff at Data East.

H-san: Indeed. There were a lot of hardcore players at DECO.

T-san: DECO games become synonymous with hardcore. (laughs)

H-san: We had an image for creativity. We wouldn’t just copy what was already out there.

—Yet from the end of the 80s onward, it seems like it was a real uphill battle for Data East.

K-san: I worked at Data East from 1979, and was there just shy of 8 years. By the time I quit in 1987, the Famicom Boom was already well under way, and Data East still hadn’t joined in on Famicom development.

H-san: We definitely underestimated the importance of the console market.

K-san: We had all those DECO cassette games that used the same 6502 CPU as the Famicom, so porting them would have been easy. Hindsight is 20/20, but our slowness there had serious repercussions for us.

—Yeah, Data East never ported most of their arcade games. The Hercules no Eikou (Glory of Hercules) series was also a console original.

K-san: We were doing alright with our arcade sales alone, right? So not to speak ill of consoles or anything, but when the Famicom came out we weren’t thinking “oh, this is such great hardware, we have to make something for it right away.” I think creative ideas are important for a game. However, to speak metaphorically, for a company that whole process of fertilizing the soil, making things grow, and reaping a good harvest is incredibly difficult. I think those things are true for any company. That was something I learned in my time at DECO. (laughs)

—Towards the end, DECO shifted their attention to the Neo Geo.

T-san: Yeah, we did. Around the time the morality laws were revised, things started looking bad for game centers, and at the same time you had home consoles like the Famicom doing really well. It was a transitional period, and the game business was changing in many different ways. DECO was a small company of about 200 employees, so naturally it was an open, unbeaurcratic environment. That’s why we were able to make good games. But we were never able to develop that into business success.

K-san: After console gaming took off, things became very different for developers depending on whether they owned a game center location or not. Those that owned game centers like Sega or Namco were able develop big cabinets and interactive games; while developers who didn’t own a game center could only make PCBs. And it was increasingly difficult to find places for those pcbs to be sold. (laughs)

Namco’s Galaxian 3, a large-style arcade machine. By this time (1994), console gaming was rapidly supplanting game centers, with big operators like Namco trying to compensate with increasingly elaborate experiences like Galaxian 3.

H-san: When it came time to port Burger Time to the Famicom, no one was available on-hand, so I was told to do it by myself. It was ported by me and two other subcontracted employees. Sold under the Nintendo brand, it sold out its first press of 24,000 copies right away. 3 people, 24,000 copies.

—It sounds like a glorious time. (laughs)

H-san: When we saw that, we realized we had to engage with the world of console games.

N-san: The only companies still struggling in the arcade market today are Sega, Namco, and Konami. Even the illustrious Capcom appears to be shrinking…

—Yeah, the prime battleground in the arcade market has shifted to the mainland in Asia, and to the Neo Geo.

H-san: That is true, but arcades have been waning all over the world. You go to a game center and there’s no new games. Mahjong games from 5 years ago are still installed in the cabs. (laughs)

T-san: It’s like the blood has stopped circulating.

K-san: That’s because there’s no new blood being introduced. All that old blood has nowhere to go.

H-san: Playing your heart out on an arcade game is still a very different kind of fun from console gaming, but the thing is, people have stopped going to the game centers.

—And if you do go, it’s nothing but the same games you can now play at home.

H-san: Yeah, no one wants to just play the same games.

K-san: For something dramatically different, people will still come out. (laughs) Something like Sega’s Derby Owner’s Club, for instance. Nowadays you’ve got to make something that gimmicky and complex to attract people.

T-san: And one could say that the game center location itself has to be an attraction.

N-san: Well, now that video games are in the process of receiving social recognition and validation, to that extent they now have a degree of social responsibility, which limits how adventurous they can be.

H-san: Yeah. In the past you could pretty much do whatever you wanted…

—I’d love to see some sequels to DECO games, if the company got back into the arcade business. Who holds the rights to your older games now?

H-san: I think they’re currently licensed to someone.

T-san: The company that holds the rights might make some sequels. There’d be no point in just buying the rights and doing nothing, right? It’d probably be something for consoles.

—Yeah, if you own the rights, you have a responsibility to create something. So let me say, to who it may concern: please make more Data East games! (laughs) Well, for my final question, looking back, what was Data East to each of you?

H-san: I joined the earliest out of everyone here, but I’m grateful to Data East for both furnishing my livelihood and for teaching me about the new, exciting world of video games. Put simply, I love this company. For our continuing work at our new company we owe a debt to Data East too, for they were the very foundation we built upon.

—Nakamura also said that DECO was a “school for game designers”. (laughs)

H-san: Yeah, everyone who was trained at DECO—not just the arcade team—is still going strong in the game industry today. The generation after us, who are now in their 30s, have mettle and experience to spare.

—Getting players to insert a 100 yen coin into your game every time they visit the arcade… it’s no easy job, is it?

K-san: Yeah, it’s tough work. And if you just make knockoffs of other games, good luck getting them to spend even 50 yen.

H-san: There’s many former DECO employees who are still working hard for modest sized companies today. DECO was like a training school to them, basically.

Some DECO fanart by pixiv user abegawa.

T-san: (suddenly changing the subject) Hey, guys, do you remember that final boss called “Gobunasu”, from B-Wing? That boss was named after a woman developer who was working at Data East then.

K-san: Yeah, all the enemy names in our games were dervied from other employees’ names.

N-san: One employee from Nagano would always pronounce “zehi” as “zeshi”, so we named an enemy “zeshizeshi.”3 (laughs) There was lots of stuff like that.

—I feel like if I don’t take this opportunity now to ask you guys about this stuff, these secrets will be lost forever. (laughs)

H-san: The person who that boss character was named after is still working at Sega today, actually. (laughs)

—Then there’s Makyou Senshi’s western title “Gondomania”, a name that made absolutely no sense to Americans.

H-san: The head of sales overseas decided that name on his own. He based it off one of the designer’s names. He was trying to be helpful; by using a Japanese name he would be certain to avoid any kind of US trademark infringement.4 (laughs)

Data East had a wealth of talent in its employees. If the company had grown and developed better, it could have become something as great as Capcom or Konami. Even today I’m indebted to the people I met in my 20 years with DECO. I feel so lucky to have worked at a company where I could make those connections.

K-san: Yeah, and there’s still a ton of people from DECO that I still see and spend time with.

—It sounds like it wasn’t a very bureaucratic or hierarchical company.

H-san: Yeah, it wasn’t. I’ve heard about many other companies that are more factional and cliqueish, or where the different divisions are segregated. Data East had none of that.

N-san: I was employed at Data East for about 15 years. I think it built fortitude and patience in me, in many different ways.

—And that fortitude certainly bore fruit in games like Midnight Resistance and others.

N-san: Yeah, I really think so. All the young people I worked with were people of good character too. I also feel that the person I am today is something I owe to Data East. The world that enjoyed the games I made then has moved on, and people seek a different kind of fun from games now. But I think we fulfilled our mission.

—The more I hear about DECO, the more it sounds like the wonderful company of your youth you’ve described. Today we got a rare and illuminating glimpse of the overall picture of life at DECO. Thank you!

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  1. As will be explained below, this is a reference to the ordered numbering of DECO Cassette games. You can see the list here. “Double digits” would mean the 11th, 22nd, 33rd, etc. In Japan, numbered items with double digits are apparently more valuable and collectible.

  2. Only the first letter of the company is given (N). Given their experience with large-type arcade machines, it’s possible the reference is to Namco.

  3. Pronouncing zehi as “zeshi” is associated with the koushuu dialect, an area near Yamanashi. Nagano is also near that area, but is associated with different dialects. The zeshizeshi enemy is also from B-Wing, btw.

  4. Probably referring to the fact that a direct translation of the Japanese title Makyou Senshi would be something like “Demon Soldier”, which is probably generic enough to have already been trademarked or copyrighted.

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