Data East – 2004 Developer Interview
In this roundtable interview, originally published in Arcade Gamer in 2004, the mysterious “D”, “E”, “C” & “O” share their insight on the inner workings of Data East, a company that intrigued and confounded audiences with a near-constant barrage of original and very peculiar arcade games from the late ’70s until formally dissolving in the early ’00s. They offer plenty of gossip, and more than a few Wikipedia corrections, about some of DECO’s most memorable titles.
—When did you start calling “Data East Corporation” by the shortened “DECO”?
D: We always called it DECO around the office, but I’m not sure when it started.
E: Weren’t there also a lot of people who called it “Data” too? Especially guys who had quit the company.
C: Now that you mention it, my older colleague who moved on called it “Data”, I think.
O: Ultimately we just can’t say when it started, though.
—Right now nameko mushrooms are all the rage, but for DECO we’ve got to talk about shiitake! That is, I have heard that DECO went bankrupt over shiitake mushrooms, is it true?
D: Seriously? Isn’t it a little sudden to start with this? Don’t you have any other questions? But no, DECO didn’t go bankrupt because of shiitake mushrooms. From what I’ve heard, a representative from a shiitake mushroom company came to Data East one day to sell these “new shiitakes that taste like matsutakes!” The President bought into it and lost a ton of money.
E: I also heard a rumor that the President actually cultivated mushrooms at his house as a hobby, but I don’t know the truth about that either. At the office we all knew something was going on, but the atmosphere was strictly “don’t ask”. If I remember, the actual bankruptcy involved a lot of other causes besides the shiitake incident…
C: The way Data East was organized, you had the First Development Group, which was arcade games; then the Second Development group, for consoles; the Third Development Group made arcade cabinets, I think? There was a Fourth Development Group too, which made fax machines for cars and disaster hood clothing.
D: This was before cell phones, and despite the fact that only some celebrities had car phones, Data East invested a ridiculous amount of technology in these car fax machines. That reminds me, I think I remember one time they went around asking us, “We developed a touch screen, but we don’t know what to use it for. Please submit your ideas.”
E: They were developing a 3D polygonal racer, but at an internal quality control meeting, it got canned because the graphics were “too cheap looking.” Then about a half a year later Virtua Racing came out and was a huge hit.
C: I think the President originally had an engineering background, which explains why Data East had so many engineers, and a lot of technological expertise compared to other companies. We were always upgrading out PCBs with the latest technology.
O: But the extra functions weren’t helpful for our games! It was always like, “What are we supposed to do with this…?”
D: It felt like Deco was always 5 years ahead in technology, but no one was able to take advantage of it. (everyone laughs)
—On Wikipedia, it says that the slogan “hen na game nara, makashitoke!” (Need a weird game? Leave it us!”) was created by Shoji Masuda. Is that true?
E: Is that right? I thought it was someone in PR. It’s definitely true though, that people got mad us: “How is it that we see you all working so hard, yet the result is THIS weird thing???”
C: The Wikipedia page for Data East has a lot of mistakes on it. The release dates for some of the games are wrong. I wonder if anyone is going to fix it someday…
—So why is it that so many of your games turned out “weird”, despite the fact that you worked on them very seriously?
O: Well, we mentioned the President a moment ago, but the thing is, he didn’t come from the game industry. Data East also employed a lot of people who had zero game experience, back in the early days when the “game industry” was still a new phenomenon. There were some programmers whose previous work had been very serious, hardcore systems programming.
D: Yeah, it was like that. Later, it seemed like a lot of ex-animators from the anime industry joined DECO.
O: And because we were a small company, there wasn’t a big sense of distance between the bosses and the employees, in a good way. It meant our plans for new games would get approved without a fight. I suppose that’s why our games were pretty much mirror images of the designers’ tastes, which made them feel edgy and unusual… Another thing is we were often explicitly told by management to make our games stand out from the pack. I think there was a strong sense that we needed to make our games different from what was on the market.
—I see. And so the line between a work of genius and something crazy was razor thin.
D: To be sure, there probably were a lot of weirdos in the planning department too.
E: There were the people who loved manly stuff… the people who wanted to make cutesy character games… and then you had the hardcore mecha maniacs. To the credit of our bosses, they never interfered with the developers’ predilections. On the other hand, quite often this meant that half a year into a development, management would see what they’d done and be like, “Huh? Is it going to be ok to release this…?”
C: The development would be going along in a pretty relaxed key, and then one day there’d be an internal location test, and then it was like, “This is bad, real bad.” The whole mood changed, and we’d suddenly be thrust into a mad scramble to revise and fix everything.
O: The ones we were able to revise came out good. But there were also others that we just released as-is…
—I’d like to know which games those were, later. But before that, I wanted to ask how each of you joined DECO?
D: I just applied like you would to any old job. Sorry it’s not any more interesting than that. Other people I knew told me they joined because they loved Karnov, or because DECO’s headquarters was close to their house.
E: And weren’t there some people who got rejected at the interview, but somehow ended up working there anyway?
C: Yeah, they were rather proud of it. They got rejected at the interviews, but later they joined in a part-time capacity, and ended up getting officially hired that way.
—Well, shall we start talking about the games now?
D: I thought you’d never ask. I was worried today was just going to be those kind of questions all day…
—I think it’s fair to say that Chelnov is one of DECO’s most well-known, representative titles. I’ve heard the rumor that the title was inspired by the Chernobyl disaster, but is that true?
D: Damn, starting off heavy I see. It’s true that people said that about Chelnov, but I was told by the developers that they simply liked the way the words sounded.
E: The original idea for Chelnov was to make a “forced scrolling shooting game with a sense of gravity”. They were also very focused on the movement: they used the movements of gymnasts as a reference for the player character, who had an impressive number of animation frames for the time. It had been allotted a fairly long development cycle, and it was only towards the end that the developers saw the word “Chernobyl” on TV or somewhere. Once they saw it they all enthusiastically decided on the name “Chelnov”.
C: That was a famous story at DECO.
E: Once the title “Chelnov” was decided, I think they went back and revised some of the visual presentation to match the new theme.
D: Wasn’t there a news organization that reached out to us at some point too? They wanted us to fill out a form telling them what game centers Chelnov was installed at, so they could go there and do a report. But we never heard anything back from them after that, did we?
E: Yeah, I wonder why…
D: Maybe once they saw the actual game, they realized it had nothing to do with the Chernobyl incident. (everyone laughs)
—Some fans are aware they Trio the Punch was originally a sugoroku game… could you share some details about that, if you know them?
D: The roulette wheel after you clear a stage is a remnant of that idea.
C: I don’t believe it started out as a sugoroku game, actually. The original title was “Un” (“Luck”), but that title was rejected. After that the content went through two or three revisions, and it was revised again after the location test. The gameplay kept changing and became something of a jumble.
O: I think it was midway through that the subtitle “TV Sugoroku” got added.
D: It’s amazing how much you guys remember.
—Well, it was written on Wikipedia…
D: Ah, I see.
—Was it difficult to developing licensed games, like Robocop?
D: We only started the developments after acquiring the licenses, of course, so there wasn’t ever any trouble in that sense.
C: There was an issue, once. We goofed and created an enemy character who had a hockey mask and chainsaw. It turned out the conglomerate company that owned Robocop didn’t have a license to the Jason character. I heard the development staff was summoned to the Data East USA branch headquarters…
D: How did it get resolved?
C: Ultimately they simply insisted it was their own original character.
E: Hmmm, maybe the copyright issues weren’t as strict in America then as they are now.
D: Speaking of Robocop, it sold really well. In the Robocop 2 movie there’s a scene at an arcade, and all the games there are Data East games, including the pinball machines. Partly thanks to the success of that game, we developed a good relationship with the movie industry, and Data East USA actively pursued cooperation with movie companies by lending them Data East cabinets as needed for filming. They lent out a lot.
—For many fans the name “DECO” conjures up pinball. How did Data East get into making pinball machines?
D: I seem to remember that it was the son of a very famous pinball company who was the driving force behind it. He established the subsidiary of Data East USA. It was a completely different division from the video game business.
E: The American branch of Data East was located in California, but the pinball subsidiary was headquartered in Chicago. Most of the pinball companies then were based in Chicago; it was easier to acquire parts and do business there.
—The stereotypical action-game story usually involved “saving the kidnapped girl!”, but strangely, in many of DECO’s games you had to save the kidnapped President…?
D: Yeah, that’s true… a lot of our games involved the President.
C: I feel like someone suggested, “If you can’t think of anything, just make the President get kidnapped.”
E: We mentioned the USA branch of Data East a moment ago, but there was an attempt (I stress “attempt”) to be conscious of American sensibilities when we released games in the US. So maybe it was a reference to American action movies from the ’80s…?
O: Yeah, and after it was well-received the first time, they just kept repeating it, two or three more times…
—Aside from the “President” trope, DECO games are also known for their many famous one-liners.
D: That’s another thing where you can see a direct reflection of the planners’ tastes—too direct, probably!
—In Bloody Wolf, there’s that famous line from the midboss with the flamethrower: “Atsui ze atsui ze atsuikute shinu ze!” (Rendered as “you will be scorched to death” in the English version)
E: That was courtesy of the “manly Data East” crew.
C: I’m guessing they liked it, because the developers used to repeat it around the office all the time.
—A lot of people still love that line from Wolf Fang too: “Otoko wa damatte pile-bunker”.1
O: This phrase came from the debugging team, who used to say that to themselves when they chose the pile-bunker weapon. The staff picked it up and used it for the Saturn port. They were really proud that they got a famous voice actor to voice the line.
—I get the impression that the staff was very obsessive about their hobbies and interests, but by the same token it also seems they worked together very well.
D: People with the same interests at DECO would form little cliques: there was the fantasy group, the robot group… there wasn’t any real conflict between those groups though.
E: The Wolf Fang staff was made up of robo fanatics, but they were divided into the “Gundam Clique” and the “Votoms Clique”. They used to debate a lot about the design.
C: That reminds me, in Wolf Fang, the strategic aspect of the game changes depending on which difficulty level you select. I believe the developers talked about intentionally making it so one difficulty was more Gundam-like in terms of strategy, and another was more Votoms-like.
O: Heh, loyal to the end to their faction. Slightly off-topic, but I remember that in ActFancer, they spent so much energy and time on the details of the mech transformation animation, the boss got angry. “Stop $#%&#$ around and just finish it!!!”
D: The main graphic designer spent so much time on those transformation animations, that even though he was credited as the “main” designer, that animation was the only thing he ended up contributing!
—Let’s talk about Edward Randy, which still enjoys a great popularity to this day. Can you say a bit about how it all got started?
D: Like Chelnov, it was originally developed as an experimental title. The initial planning staff stuffed the game with all their favorite things.
E: The planning document read exactly like a sequel to Indiana Jones. It took a huge amount of time to develop, in any event. Cramming the game with everything we wanted also meant that we created a lot of trouble for ourselves. I got the strong impression that everyone working on Edward Randy had a really great time, though. They’ve told me “Edward Randy was the most fun I had of all the games I made at Data East.”
C: With Edward Randy, I remember they had problems balancing the game, which caused a lot of chaos internally.
O: It was the unusual arc of the whip attack combined with the fact that you used it to move all over the place. “I can’t hit it! The whip won’t reach! It won’t latch on!” We heard that everyday.
D: Edward Randy was the game that gave birth to our “morning drinking sessions” at DECO.
—What’s that? Is it related to the “girl” event?
D: Once the development got fully underway, we spent many nights at the office. A lot of people would work for weeks straight, only going home for one single day. There were employee dormitory facilities near the office, but they would be locked at 1 AM. You either had to be in by 1AM, or wait until they unlocked the building in the morning.
—You didn’t just sleep through the night?
C: The majority of the developers would take a short nap when night fell, then leave the dorm at 1AM and go back to work. It sounds weird but it’s true.
D: Then when we got back to the office in the dead of night, the boss would be like, “let’s have a morning drinking party!” They’d go from 2 AM till whenever, these half-planning, half-drinking party sessions. Of course, when everyone’s planning the game and drinking at the same time, you can imagine things start to go in a pretty weird direction…
—I see now. “Drunk planning”… I feel like I’ve finally understood a critical piece of the DECO puzzle. Back to Edward Randy—it’s presented as a cinematic, high adventure, and I love the slogan you used “Bouken hyakurenpatsu.”2 I think it fits perfect.
D: Yeah, the developers would say, “Think of Edward Randy like watching a movie that you control.” They were very conscious of movies when making it, so it’s natural it came out that way.
E: It was also cool how they started the game from the middle of the story, with the “IKINARI KURAIMAKKUSU!” (Sudden Climax!) text in the first stage.3
C: For its time, I don’t think any other game had so thoroughly tried to capture that cinematic feeling.
—The fight on the airplane and the car chase scenes were also very memorable.
E: Normally with pseudo-3D, you only see the player character’s back, but Edward Randy was special in that you could see the character’s face.
D: In pseudo-3D games there’s a part of the backgrounds which look awkward when they’re changing graphics, but someone came up with an idea that really helped moved the plans forward. “What if we swapped the backgrounds at the same instant that the cloud sprites are passing by?”
C: Speaking of the backgrounds, at the time, the pixels they were working with weren’t perfectly square: they were actually rectangular. This meant that even when you performed a simple sprite rotation, the image would end up looking warped. So for things like biplanes, and other objects which tilted back and forth when they moved, to rotate those sprites they had to manually create all the animation patterns from scratch. I was very surprised to learn that.
E: Now that’s some real heavy lifting there.
D: That reminds me, wasn’t DECO in dire straits in 1991, financially?
E: I believe they were saved by Captain America and the Avengers, which was a huge hit overseas. DECO’s savior!
D: In an era when most PCBs sold around three to five thousand units, I remember that game sold twenty or thirty thousand. It was a huge hit.
C: Our other games from that period, Edward Randy, Thunder Zone, and Death Blade didn’t do so well.
O: It’s no exaggeration to say that our bonuses that year were all owed to Captain America.
—Another DECO game that stands out in my memory is “The Great Ragtime Show.”
C: It was heavily influenced by an American comedy movie called “The Great Race.” The planner loved early Americana, and that was probably an influence too.
D: The enemies in the game look a lot like characters from the movie.
C: There’s two villains in the movie, but in typical Japanese fashion, they made it 3 for the game. I believe it was the female character they added.
—It got a lot of attention for the plane’s “grab anything” hook. People also adored the extremely detailed pixel art.
D: I was very impressed by the scene inside the enemy plane where everything goes zero gravity for an instant. The way you could control other vehicles was also very fun.
E: The developers remarked that they wanted to make even the extraneous parts of the game—that is, those things that weren’t directly related to the gameplay—a fun experience for players. Their goal was to make something that was simply fun to play.
D: I heard the idea for the hook came from a similar place, just wanting to have fun.
—It could also be thought of as an evolution on the “pick up anything!” system from Crude Buster (Two Crude Dudes).
D: There were in fact several developers from Crude Buster working on Great Ragtime Show, so that’s a likely influence too.
E: It’s really rummaging through a toybox, when you think of it—a game where anything you see on-screen, you can use. The staff used to talk about it that way too.
—Despite being such a masterpiece, very few people played it at the time. Do you know how many PCBs were actually in circulation…?
E: I heard it was around 500.
D: They didn’t seem to try very hard to sell or market it.
—So, I want to talk about Fighter’s History too, but that means talking about you-know-what…
E: Rei was supposed to be the protagonist, but Makoto Mizoguchi stole the spotlight. Did you know Mizoguchi was voiced by a DECO employee?
—I think that’s written on Wikipedia. Fighter’s History ran into some legal troubles too, I believe…
D: I knew you’d ask about that. I don’t know the details myself, but when DECO exhibited it at a game show, I heard an employee from Capcom came over and said “Hey, this looks exactly like our character.”
E: There were certainly a lot of similar details, but in terms of copyright, the biggest problem was the 6-button layout and the control scheme.
C: Legal matters were taken extremely seriously at DECO. Very little information was passed down to the developers, so we don’t know the truth about what did (or didn’t) happen.
—Windjammers was a big hit not only with hardcore fans, but also casual users and overseas players. Why was it released for the Neo Geo?
D: Probably because the Neo Geo was really popular then in Europe, I assume? They were thinking of the overseas market.
E: For the planning of Windjammers, the touchstones were Atari’s Pong, Table Tennis, and versus block-breaking games. I remember in the planning docs, it said they wanted to create a game with simple controls, where a victory could be decided relatively quickly, like Air Hockey.
—So it wasn’t targeted at the Japanese market?
D: At DECO, the overseas market was always the main focus, and any sales in Japan were just seen as gravy.
E: In the beginning, Windjammers was aimed at America, not Europe. The early plans had animal characters, macho looking animal characters throwing the discs back and forth.
C: The developers had all these reference materials on bodybuilding, weight lifting, and musculature. They were very diligent about depicting the muscles correctly.
—Ah… I always felt the way DECO drew muscles was frightfully real. Now I see they had a wealth of resources to work from!
C: Speaking of muscles, in the officially released game, wasn’t one of the characters modeled after pro-wrestler Scott Norton?
O: I recall they were modeled on the mixed martial artist Dick Vrij, and a certain famous tennis player. And I think the female character was (adult video star) Ai Iijima?
D: Was the staff into them...?
—By the way, what happened to the animal characters? You don’t see them in the official version.
D: They had designed the animal characters for the American market, but without warning, the main target switched to Europe, and we were told “Animal characters won’t be popular in Europe”, so they got dropped.
E: Yeah, there was a definite sense that for Europe, a more realistic style was preferred. In America games were something children played, but Europe, in contrast, had a lot of pinball tables and arcade machines set up in the corners of bars and the like.
—How did the Outlaws of the Lost Dynasty development get started?
D: One day our boss came in and declared, “You know what would be a big hit in China? A game based on Suikoden!” And we were off. Most of the staff was a bit perplexed, “Huh? Suikoden… why not Sangokushi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) instead?” In any event, the development schedule was very short so it was a tough one.
—Do you have any memorable stories to share?
D: When we were making the character Shi Jin, it was pointed out that he fights with a staff, but some of the staff thought it would be better to give him a sword. Then, at the location test, we got several feedback cards back which complained about it: “Don’t you idiots know Shi Jin uses a staff?!” I remember it well, even now.
—Of all DECO’s games, Magical Drop has both the strangest and the cutest art design.
C: Our boss came by one day and told us, “We’ve acquired the rights for a number of different Russian puzzle games. Choose one you think would work well and make a game out of it.” That’s how Magical Drop got started—it was basically just forced on us. It was the era of the Tetris Boom, and Russian puzzle games in particular were plentiful, so we chose one of them as the base for Magical Drop, and created a visual design which could fit its rules. The graphic designer, if I recall, was forced into the role of planner for the game: “You’re the most reliable one here, so you’re doing it.” He was the one who led the development in a direction which would appeal to women, using tarot cards as a motif.
D: Despite the fact that it was DECO’s first “cute” game to try to appeal directly to girls, the advertising slogan the PR department used was “A hot puzzle game direct from Russia!” The planner was really angry about that.
—Yeah, I imagine that would be infuriating. Well, thank you all for your time today! Are there any last appeals you’d like to make?
D: Actually, there’s something I’ve been wondering about for a long time, and now that we’re all here, I wanted to ask: I’ve heard rumors, but did the “Uhihi-kai” really exist at DECO…? (Uhihi is the sound of scheming laughter, and kai is a meeting/gathering, so something like “Heh heh heh Club” might be a possible translation).
Everyone: Huh? What’s that?
D: Well, I heard that a bunch of athletic guys at DECO formed a baseball club, but existing alongside that was something called the “Uhihi-kai”. From what I heard, in the winter, they’d all go to this mountain they liked to ski on, and climb up there and pitch tents. Then they’d sit around a campfire and scheme “heh heh heh heh heh…” I mean, I guess it was some kind of male competition or men’s club thing.
—I’m sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
C: I do have a vague memory of some of the guys at DECO doing something like that. When we’d all go drinking, they’d sometimes talk about their plans for the next Uhihi-kai with their senior colleagues: “Let’s try this next time!”
D: Too bad, I had really wanted to ask everyone here if they were a part of it.
Everyone: Sorry, we weren’t!
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This is a play on an old Sapporo beer commercial, “otoko wa damatte, sapporo beer”, which is a difficult-to-translate paean to stoic / silent manliness of the Clint Eastwood variety, meaning something like “A Man says nothing, and drinks his Sapporo.” Replace Sapporo with Pile-Bunker and you have the joke.↩
Something like, “100 Adventures Await You”, though it would probably be translated into something more natural for English-speaking audiences.↩
This text was removed from the English versions, which just starts with “Stage 1” after the “Data East” film strip graphics.↩