Early Arcade Classics: 1985-87 Interviews

Early Arcade Classics: 1985-87 Interviews

This compilation of short interviews covers the arcade classics of Pac-Man, Galaxian, Pole Position, Track & Field, and Space Invaders. The 1985 interviews are taken from the legendary BEEP! Magazine; the 1987 interviews come from the book TV Game: denshi yuugi taizen. Anecdotes of design and development abound, and the lyrical mood of Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani is particularly interesting.


Toru Iwatani – Designer/Creator

(1985) When you’re trying to bring a new idea to life, you often encounter the following problem: even though you may convince your bosses of the basic idea quickly enough, it can take a long time to convince them of the parts they’ve deemed “extraneous.” You have to persuade them that those ideas are only unnecessary when viewed in isolation: once it’s part of a game that’s out there in the world, then those players who love that game will in no way see it as “extraneous.” Honestly, finding the words to convince management of this is a whole other side of the job. When I made Pac-Man, I strongly believed that the time had come for video games to become more than they were, and I wanted to express that in my new game. But the newer your ideas, the more work it takes to make others see your vision, and that really took up a lot of my time and energy.

However, deep at night in the city, when the storm of sound from all the gadgets and electronic devices has quieted, there is a feeling that suffuses the surface of everything, like a dust of snow. If you listen, it says: all those things that people say are “useless” or “extraneous”—far from being harmful, I owe many of my best ideas to them. And in this age we find ourselves in—an age still youthful and not fully ripened—in this moment, it is from the chaos of all those “unnecessary” things that light will begin to shine.

(1987) Lately, I’ve noticed a decline in the vitality of the game centers compared to the old days. I think it’s sad. People aren’t coming to the game centers for a specific game they want to play; to them a video game is nothing more than a cheap way to kill a little time. If game centers continue to be treated in this offhand, casual way, they’ll soon be nothing more than a place to collect spare change: a city’s piggy bank.

Toru Iwatani, age 30

Game centers today may be larger and more spacious, but in reality they’ve shrunk… they’re just places to put game machines. And they’re currently getting lumped in with delinquent / redlight industries.

I think the variety of arcade games is starting to show stagnation, too. It’s no wonder that STG games, which are based on relatively orthodox rulesets and can be played very casually, have become one of the pillars of the game center. In the future, I predict we’ll see more growth in simulation games and taikan games—games where you can physically simulate the experience of a mini roller coaster, and actually fall several feet. There’s no question in my mind that “live movement” games like that are going to dominate the arcade world.

Hardcore game fans have a very deep understanding of games. I believe that. When developers create games mainly with them in mind, there’s a tendency for those games to come out very complex. However, because of that, games today have become harder for the average person, and for women, to enjoy, and in my opinion that is regretful. There’s been less and less games that are simple-but-deep, that anyone can enjoy.

Creating a game generally takes around a year. I think to the public, game creation seems like a very difficult job, and in fact, we often have to work way more hours than other professions.

The eternal classic, Pac-Man

But video games allow for 2-way participation between the creator and the user, and are a unique medium in that regard. Unlike other mediums in which there is no participation from the audience, with game design, you can tell very quickly if your ideas are being understood. This allows us, as game creators, to get continuous feedback, and therefore make continuous revisions to our work. A finished game is the product of many, many such revisions to the initial planning document.

Currently, I’ve moved away from creative work at Namco. I’m now more of a manager and producer, supervising the younger generation. In game design, there are many shades of grey between what is “right” and “not right”, and I must also respect the sensibilities of the younger generation, so this work, too, is very challenging. That said, I don’t personally have to do work I don’t want to anymore, and I like the more relaxed nature of managing.

I don’t play video games very much. Only sometimes, to get some hints or ideas for our own game developments. My colleagues at Namco don’t play that much either. Many of them joined the company after their “obsessive” phase with video games had peaked. They bring a pro-level mentality to their games—they can be frighteningly objective in their judgment!

I consider myself more an artist than an engineer, really. That’s why I try to make games that will impress even the hardcore, true game fan. However, I never forget that in reality, when a game contains the true essence of gaming, it will be loved by the masses. I’m always reminding myself of that. Being part of a company, I always aim for a commercial hit, something that will sell.

The person I’d love to work with? The director Juzo Itami. To me he seems to be a person who is also pursuing that “true essence”. I’d love to talk with him, not necessarily only about games, at least once in my life.

Ultimately, to me making video games is an act of kindness to others, a tangible gift of happiness. There truly is nothing I love more than seeing people enjoying themselves with the games I’ve created. I always want to walk up to them and ask them their thoughts. How was it? Are you having fun? (laughs)

Takao Ueno holds up a draft of the Space Invaders cabinet art.
Space Invaders

Takao Ueno – Supervisor

I joined Taito soon after graduating, back in April 1966. At the time I made crane games, and electro-mechanical driving games that didn’t use a television monitor. For Space Invaders, I was the supervisor. At the end of every week I held planning and development meetings with the other staff. One of the ideas that came out of these meetings was, we thought it would be interesting to make a game with enemies that actually attacked the player. That was the point of departure for Space Invaders.

The basic idea came from thinking about Breakout. The first idea we had was for a block-breaking game, where the blocks would descend lower and lower towards the player as the level of challenge increased. Naturally, the closer they got, the harder it would get. But that alone seemed kind of boring. The idea got changed to one that included a “war”-like division of characters into “enemies” and “allies”. There would be fortresses, and the enemies would hide behind them and come at you, attacking and shooting. Such was the genesis of the famous Space Invaders.

Pole Position

Shinichiro Okamoto – Planner

There were three things I wanted to realize with Pole Position: first, I wanted a complete simulation that would allow a player to execute real driving techniques; second, I wanted the screen to be a 3D type view; and third, I wanted the track to be based on the actual Fuji Speedway, and for that to be recognizeable to players when they played.

Welcome to the Fuji Speedway.

The difficult part was configuring and engineering the hardware necessary to realize such an ambitious concept. We used dual 16-bit processors, something unheard of for video games at the time. Getting the controls to feel realistic, and at the same time match up with the gameplay, was also a very difficult challenge, but I feel we worked it into something enjoyable.

Track & Field

Konami Development Staff

Oh, you want to know why we made Track & Field? It’s simple enough: we were inspired by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics held last year, and said to each other, “yeah! let’s make a sports game like this!” Indeed, there had not been a track and field style athletic event game yet. We also wanted to see if we could create a game that wasn’t Human vs. CPU, but Human vs. Human.

After deciding on our path, we got to work. Every morning we’d grab our fresh, warm bento lunchboxes and head down to the local college track and field meets to watch them compete, and get a real feel for how it all works. We also watched and researched videos from the Tokyo Olympics and other events featuring Olympic atheletes. One of our developers adored the Finnish javelin thrower Tiina Lillak so much, he insisted that we add javelin to the events!

Also, the announcer’s voice was originally in Japanese, but it felt weird and a little lackluster, so we switched it over to English midway. Did you know your score can reach 9,999,990 points? We’re waiting for someone to get there!

Tiina Lillak, inspiration for the Javelin throw event in Track & Field.

Kazunori Sawano – Planner/Designer

Everyone thinks of Galaxian as my defining work, but for myself, I think Shoot Away—an electromechanical gun shooting game—was my finest moment.

We were actually in the middle of developing Galaxian when Space Invaders came out, and the President of Namco told us, in no uncertain terms, that Galaxian had to be the “post-Invaders” game. It was a tremendous amount of pressure. Naturally, we took a lot of cues from Space Invaders while making Galaxian. The actual development took about six months, but the ideas had been cooking in my head for about a half year before that.

People talked a lot about the scrolling starfield background, and the way the aliens flew in curved lines. Many people have said that Galaxian had a strong artistic quality that no game before it had, but that wasn’t a particular goal of ours. We thought doing it this way would sell better, that’s all. We actually thought we shouldn’t make it too artistic if we wanted it to sell, and we cut out a number of things to that end.

The movie Star Wars had a huge impact on us then. The image of an intergalactic war has been a big theme for my game developments in general, I think. My theme for Galaxian was, how can I evoke that feeling of a war in space?

The sound effects, in particular, were something I really labored over. I would explain my ideas to the sound effects guy, and he would create something and bring it back to me. I’d say, “this is a little off”, and then try to find other words to explain the image I had… this back-and-forth process went on for awhile. I think I made him cry at one point. (laughs) If I recall, I believe this was the first game we used an actual synthesizer for to make the sounds, too.

Kazunori Sawano

I spent a great deal of effort and care on the game balance. Games today become almost impossible as you progress through them, and the manner in which they get difficult is very crude, very obvious: all of a sudden, with no warning or build-up, there’ll just be some new stronger enemies. In Galaxian, the number of enemies never changes. The difficulty from one stage to the next is almost imperceptible; however, if you compare stage 1 to stage 10, it’s very clear that stage 10 is harder. That’s the kind of slow build-up I went for, where things gradually seem to get harder, but there’s no apparent disjunction. I think it’s a very important concept in game design.

I think arcade games are going through a period of stagnation today. A new game comes out, and it feels like the only thing that changed was the visuals. I think older arcade games had a richer variety in their gameplay. We need to return to an understanding of what makes a game “a game”, what “playing” means, and what lies at the heart of what people really like about games. Games haven’t yet achieved widespread popularity among adults, but if game designers want to create games that adults, too, can enjoy, then they should spend more time thinking about what the essentials of games really are.

As far as atmosphere in games goes, I believe that’s the purview of the visual artists. What is important to game designers, is that the game be fun no matter what the sprites look like—or even without any sprites at all. In the beginning of Galaxian, I thought the aliens were going to be ships like the Tie Fighters from Star Wars. I think a truly great game is one that can draw people in and get them emotionally involved, regardless of the graphics. Or to put it more bluntly: it shouldn’t matter if the graphics are just simple triangles and circles. Look at chess. The chess pieces don’t have a ton of personality or “character.” And yet it is one of the deepest games there is.

Galaxian was the first Namco game to use an actual synthesizer for sounds, according to Sawano.

Video games, as a medium, can’t really be compared to other mediums. They involve the player, who is free to move and alter the image on the screen as he sees fit. In that respect they’re entirely unlike movies. There are game designers out there who like to write long and involved stories, but I think that is actually more of a hindrance to good game design. There’s no way you’re going to make a good game if you’re constricted by the needs of the story. Video games aren’t novels, either.

Our location tests have been almost entirely accurate in predicting whether a game is going to be a hit or not. However, nowadays you have all these hardcore gamers, so it’s become harder to put faith in the results of the location tests. They’ll challenge any game, no matter the genre, at least once. And they obsess over the details of the game world. I’m grateful, of course, that people who love games this much are out there… but it does make the location tests less reliable. (laughs)

At my heart, I still consider myself an artist. But unlike in the days of Galaxian, to work as a game developer now requires a great deal of specialized knowledge (both hardware and programming), so I no longer work on the front lines. I do outline design plans and such, but I mostly lead the next generation. In addition, I still continue my personal research everyday, so I have confidence in my ability to predict whether a game will be a hit or not.

I love drinking, so when one of our games does turn out to be a big hit, we have a big celebration. And when a game doesn’t live up to our expectations, we have a consolation party, so either way I get to drink. (laughs)

Personally, whether I’m designing a video game or an electromechanical game, in both cases I’m trying to create “play”. This work is my life, and I’ve got big dreams I want to fulfill—for myself and for the amusement industry as a whole.

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