Fantasy Zone – 2002 Developer Interview

Fantasy Zone – 2002 Developer Interview

The first of these Fantasy Zone interviews from 2002 looks back at the making of the popular Mark III port, made by prolific console port director Mutsuhiro “Mucchan” Fujii. The second, from 1997, catches up with the original arcade team after the release of the Sega Ages port of Fantasy Zone. It offers some additional insight (as well as precious concept art with developer comments) and works nicely as a companion piece to the longer interview with Ishii available here.

Mutsuhiro “Mucchan” Fujii (Director)
Director (Sega Mark III version). Joined Sega in 1984. In addition to his Sega Mark III ports of famous arcade games like Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier, he has also directed original works such as Bahamut Senki for the Megadrive.

—How did you join Sega?

Mucchan: I joined the company in 1984, and was assigned to the R&D Division Planning Department. A single department would be comprised of programmers, planners, and designers, and our Planning Department had about 10 people in total. Some of my colleagues then included people like Yuji Naka, Rieko Kodama, and Hisao Oguchi. Oguchi and I used to go to this little karaoke snack1 bar and run up a tab drinking. (laughs)

—Did you start off working on console games?

Mucchan: Yeah. The year before I was hired the SC-3000 had come out. Then the year I was hired, they divided their development departments into an Arcade and Console groups. And I was assigned to head up the console group.

—What was the first game you directed?

Mucchan: The first one that was released, I think, was a port of Konami’s Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun, I believe?

—And between that release and Fantasy Zone, how many games did you work on?

Mucchan: …a lot. (laughs) In the beginning, it was me and three others. We had about 20 titles in concurrent development, so each week we’d be working on 3 or 4 different games at a time. So by the time Fantasy Zone came out, I already had quite a number of releases under my belt.

By the way, an easy way to tell which games I worked on is to look for the following letters/numbers: “6216”, “MUT”, or “241”. Back then I wasn’t allowed to use my own name, so I snuck those in as a little calling card, and my own stamp of my pride.

Mucchan holding up a copy of Fantasy Zone for the Sega Mark III.

—How did they decide who developed what at Sega…?

Mucchan: The way work was assigned then, it was basically we’d get all the programmers, planners, and everyone together in a meeting, and things would just happen organically. “I want to do this project!” Ok. “You should handle this.” Ok. It was the same way with Fantasy Zone. We had just gotten access to 1M (megabit) ROMs—about 4x the memory of what we’d been working with—and so the first thing that was done, was to settle on a “schedule” and deadline. We also decided to work on two 1M titles at the same time.

As for what kind of games we’d make… with the schedule we’d set for ourselves, we all agreed that an original title wouldn’t be practical. But as luck would have it, Sega had just acquired the Hokuto no Ken license, so we felt it made sense to use that now, even though it meant developing a new game from scratch. For the other game, we tried to think of something we could port fairly quickly, and Fantasy Zone’s name came up… (laughs) Then they asked for directors and I raised my hand. It was that simple.

Speaking of the arcade version, the sub-programmer of Fantasy Zone and I were in the same dorm in college so we got along well. During the arcade development, I would often go to their floor to play it, so I saw a lot of their work up-close. Since I had been watching the development from the start, I knew what was what, and had a general idea of how much memory everything took. That’s why I thought we could do a quick home console port, provided we were clever about re-using those assets. I thought the bosses would be impossible though.

—Did you struggle with deciding what to cut and what to keep?

Mucchan: Well, my attitude back then, at least, was to stuff in everything we could. Being a 1M cart, I figured we could re-use the background graphics, but had it been a 32k game (a MyCard Mark III game) we probably would have had to cut some of the stages. But each time I made a game, my basic philosophy was to do everything I could within the limitations of the memory and the hardware.

—The Sega Mark III Fantasy Zone has different bosses for stages 4 and 6. How did they come about?

Mucchan: My approach with the bosses was to re-create them as closely as possible to their original arcade version. They may have small visual differences, but as long as you could beat them the same way, I was satisfied. Replicating the stage 4 and 6 bosses on the Mark III hardware was too difficult, though, so we swapped them.

A visual comparison of the Arcade, Mark III, and Famicom versions of Fantasy Zone (source).

—When was that decision made in the development?

Mucchan: I remember how at that the end of that first meeting, when I stood up to leave, the programmer next to me said “So what are we going to do about the bosses?” I replied that yeah, using them as-is would be impossible, so we’d either have to cut down on their sprites or make something else entirely. So to answer your question, basically right from the beginning. They were the first thing we worried ourselves over!

—Were there any other bosses you considered making alternates for?

Mucchan: There were not.

—Even for IDA-2, the stage 7 boss?

Mucchan: We knew from the start that we wanted to add IDA-2.

—So it sounds like there wasn’t a lot of prolonged debate about which bosses you could include. You simply knew right off the bat that 4 and 6 would be impossible to port over.

Mucchan: Yeah… it’s because I was fully aware of the hardware’s limitations. I was all too familiar with exactly how many sprites could be displayed on a horizontal line and other quirks of displaying and animating sprites with the Mark III.

—The necessity of blank backgrounds for the boss scenes in the Mark III version was likewise something you knew from the get-go, then.

Mucchan: Yup! The thing is, I knew we had to choose between having animated backgrounds or bosses that could move. I’d of course have preferred to do a direct port of the arcade version, but given the deadline we had and the hardware limitations I could see that some things were off the table. We knew how much memory we had available for spirtes too. So it was likely the case—actually, it was definitely the case—that if we displayed the full backgrounds we couldn’t display the bosses.

Ultimately, because I’d spent so much time watching them make the arcade version, I’d also already given a great deal of thought to how you might be able to port Fantasy Zone to the Mark III. That “blueprint” existed in my mind. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have raised my hand and volunteered to take this project on.

—I see. Did you do any experiments at all, to see if the other bosses might be ported after all?

Mucchan: No. Unfortunately.

—So instead, for stages 4 and 6, you went with the fish and turtle bosses, respectively?

Mucchan: Yeah.

—Why a fish and turtle?

Mucchan: Well, the original bosses has this ocean/sea vibe going on. So I said let’s make something aquatic, and asked our designers to try and maintain that same general image.

Concept art showing the evolution of Opa Opa’s character, with comments by his designer Masaki Kondo. The first rough sketch of Opa Opa shown on the left actually envisioned him as a pilot; Kondo was bad at drawing faces, so he drew him without a head. The next sketch (with a metal hatch) show the “Soyokaze 1”, the craft that Opa Opa was originally supposed to pilot. The middle two sketches were done by other designers. The final sketches on the right show Opa Opa’s evolution from a mechanical craft with a pilot to an anthropomorphized entity, and more closely approach the finished design.

—How did you instruct the designers, exactly? Did you hand them rough sketches?

Mucchan: No, it was all verbal. For the stage 4 fish boss, I just said to “make it a fish”. Same thing with the turtle. I like turtles. (laughs) But the precise form and colors and so forth, those details I left to their imagination.

—Who came up with their unusual attack patterns?

Mucchan: That would be the programmer. He showed me the new attacks he’d made and I gave him some feedback. I said we need to remember that brand new STG players will be playing this, and had him adjust the difficulty accordingly.

Regarding the difficulty, back then we used to do focus tests at Hakuhinkan Toy Store in Ginza. We’d ask normal kids visiting the store to play a working version of our game, then have them fill out a feedback card about how fun it was, what they thought of the difficulty, how far they got, things like that. It was a good indicator of how hard the game should be.

—How did you come up with the names for the new bosses?

Mucchan: Me, two programmers, two designers, and one sound guy—so six of us in total—had a meeting and threw our ideas out there for names. We then voted on which we liked. (laughs) Great Strong Tot or something…

—Oh? You don’t remember the fish boss’ official name?!

Mucchan: That’s how I remembered it! (laughs) Anyway, that long Strong Tot or whatever name was one of the sub designers ideas, I believe.

—It’s Ultra Super Big Maxim Great Strong Tot.

Mucchan: Right, that’s right. (laughs) Um… I can’t remember the turtle’s name though. I know I signed off on it, but I don’t remember who came up with it originally…

—It’s “dz Deno Roma”.

Mucchan: That’s it!

—It’s a turtle, and you pronounce the name “doji deno roma”—it’s obviously a reference to Stewardess Monogatari, right?2

Mucchan: Correct!

—By the way, it seems like in the Fantasy Zone universe, when it comes to turtles and fish, there’s a kind of “anything goes” attitude, in a number of senses… (laughs)

Mucchan: Yeah, I don’t know. Today we can say there’s a Fantasy Zone “universe” or style, but the game had more humble origins—the original arcade developers, in fact, had no guarantee it would even be released. (laughs) The ending message in English in the Mark III version, too, didn’t have a lot of forethought put in. It was just something they had me translate from Japanese.

—Well, I’d like to pause the interview for a moment here, and have you do a live playthrough of the Sega Mark III Fantasy Zone!

Mucchan: What, are you serious?!

—Were you really able to clear multiple loops back then?

Mucchan: Of course! But I was using an arcade stick. The thing is, if I hadn’t been good enough, we wouldn’t have been able to film the commercials. There was no stage select, and they asked us to shoot the final stage for the commercial, so the only way was to play from the start.

—There was a commercial…?

Mucchan: Back then Sega didn’t do commercials for one game exclusively; rather, they’d introduce a bunch of games in the span of 15 or 30 seconds. It was one of those.

—Oh, I think I remember. Was it the one that showed the boy staring at his TV, engrossed in the game?

Mucchan: Yeah, that’s the one. The screen you see there, that was actually me playing behind-the-scenes. (laughs) If I didn’t use a proper arcade stick though I couldn’t produce something filmable, even for a simple commercial. (holding controller) I can’t play with this thing! (laughs)

—What did the arcade developers of Fantazy Zone think of the Mark III port?

Mucchan: The main programmer KTG (Shuichi Katagi) thought highly of it. (laughs) At first he was like, “you couldn’t put all the bosses in?!” And I told him there was no way. You can only have 4 sprites on a horizontal line, after all. He agreed and told me he thought it was very well done.

The arcade hardware for Fantasy Zone, you see, had more than ten times the memory of the Mark III, and we had to somehow re-create all that in just a 1M cart. That’s 1 megabit, by the way, not megabyte. This was the era of the 1.44 megabyte floppy, and that 1M Mark III cart was actually only 128kb of space. That’s why it impressed the arcade team so much.

—By the way, did you handle the overseas versions too, for the Master System?

Mucchan: Yeah. After releasing Fantasy Zone in Japan, next came the American version. We showed it at the CES (Computer Entertainment Show, the predecessor to E3) that year. That was in Chicago. I went with Yuji Naka, who had programmed Hokuto no Ken.

I remember the two of us woke up at 4AM that day and meandered around Chicago taking pictures. We had breakfast, then went to a museum, where Naka lost his camera somewhere. He never found it either. Ah… sorry. I know this is getting off-topic.

—Fantasy Zone ended up being ported to a large number of systems, including the Famicom and the PC Engine. What do you think of those? (laughs)

Mucchan: I remember my first reaction was “What?! They managed to include all the original bosses… damn!” (laughs)

—The Famicom version had them all, yeah.

Mucchan: Right. Honestly, it reminded me of how amazing the Famicom is, as a console. As for the other ports… well, naturally as time goes by the hardware gets better, so I think it only makes sense that those ports were more accurate.

—Finally, what does Fantasy Zone mean to you, Mucchan?

Mucchan: It was Sega’s very first 1M cart. Compared to the console games Sega had released up to then, I think Fantasy Zone probably helped spread the word and made more people (including those who had only played the Famicom) aware of our console offerings. In that sense, yeah, I can’t help feeling some pride about it. And happiness. To me, Fantasy Zone is the game that introduced Sega’s home consoles to Famicom players.

—Do you still feel that same pride for it?

Mucchan: Maybe not as much as before, but… a little still. (laughs)

Fantasy Zone – 1997 Developer Interview

originally featured in Sega Saturn Magazine

Yoji Ishii – Planner
Masaki Kondo – Designer
Shuichi Katagi – Programmer
Hiroshi Kawaguchi – Composer

—How did Fantasy Zone get started?

Ishii: The people in this room today were the main people involved in the Fantasy Zone project. About six months earlier, Sega had started working on a different shooting game, but it wasn’t going very well. So the higher-ups decided to swap out the development teams and bring in completely new people. It was the golden age of horizontal shooting games then, and Konami had just released Gradius in 1985, which was a huge hit in the arcades. So Sega told us to make “something that would surpass Gradius—the ultimate STG game!” And that’s how the Fantasy Zone project officially got started, with that lofty goal and a brand new team. All we kept from the previous shooting development was the basic idea of a horizontal shooter.

—It’s a surprise to hear that Gradius was your target—and all the moreso considering that visually, at least, Fantasy Zone took a very different path. What were you aiming at there?

Ishii: Obviously, we knew that if we just copied Gradius too closely, our game would end up getting compared to it. Personally, I wanted to add a lot of new elements, and visually go beyond Gradius. I essentially wanted to do something brand new. So… and I guess this is a small digression, but… I also didn’t really like shooting games very much, nor was I good at them. (laughs) That’s partly where the idea for the shop came from; I wanted Fantasy Zone to be accessible for new players and offer them some degree of assistance.

—Was the title “Fantasy Zone” something you decided from the start?

Ishii: No, I originally wanted the title to be “Opa Opa”.

Kondo: We didn’t add names for all the enemies and bosses until the end of the development. Then we named them all in one mad sprint. I do remember with the main character, though, Ishii was insistent that he be named Opa Opa.

Ishii: I wanted the title to be “Opa-Opa” too, but due to various circumstances… (laughs) Apparently Yu Suzuki, who was developing Space Harrier at the same time as us, wanted to name his game Fantasy Zone. But when our development chief saw our game, he said the title of Fantasy Zone fit what we were doing better. “Opa Opa is just a nonsense title. Fantasy Zone is better, let’s go with that!” And so we did.

The original Fantasy Zone arcade team. Top (L-R): Yoji Ishii, Masaki Kondo. Bottom (L-R): Shuichi Katagi, and Hiroshi Kawaguchi.

—Several years later an arcade game with the title “Opa Opa” was released… is there a connection?

Ishii: Ah yes, the maze game that used Opa Opa. That was made by a different staff. (laughs)

—Turning to the game design, the characters of Fantasy Zone have a soft, warm vibe to them that we hadn’t seen in games up to that point. Where did your ideas come from?

Kondo: The characters weren’t modeled after anything specific. Ishii asked me to try making “something a little different”, but I was still a relatively new hire at Sega, so I wasn’t really beholden to those older ideas anyway. However, before starting Fantasy Zone, I’d helped out on three separate developments, and on those projects, I definitely felt that the graphics and resolution were very crude, and I’d been unable to draw anything round or soft with that hardware. I wasn’t able to do nice shading or gradations either. I think Fantasy Zone’s visual style was largely a reaction to that.

—In terms of the programming, when you created those bosses with their elaborate multi-jointed sprites, was that also in response to Gradius?

Katagi: No, actually… at that time, I was more into Defender than Gradius, and I think Fantasy Zone is closer to Defender, if I had to say. (laughs) To that end we added the two-directional scrolling, though this may have effectively made the game too hard…

Ishii: No, no, I think it’s fine.

—For its time, the backgrounds were extremely pretty. Were there any issues with displaying the number of colors, or with the palettes?

Kondo: Looking back now, we had very little memory to work with. The backgrounds may seem complex, but they were done by combining various patterns together in a jigsaw puzzle-like arrangement. It came out rather well.

Ishii: In this era of video games, you couldn’t display a lot of sprites, and it was a pain moving big sprites around the screen. Our hardware limited us to displaying 62 sprites at the same time. But our programmers performed an incredible feat in figuring out how to make those big bosses move, and finding a workaround to have up to 200 items on-screen (including bullets)… their efforts made Fantasy Zone into the game it is.

Katagi: Fantasy Zone use the System 16 pcb, and everyone was really excited to finally be working with new specs and 16-bit hardware. In reality, though, there were still many constraints, and I remember being disappointed. (laughs)

An image of the “jigsaw puzzle” backgrounds from Fantasy Zone, showing how they were pieced together sprite-by-sprite.

—The bosses in Fantasy Zone have a great deal of personality. How did you go about designing them?

Ishii: The bosses were all originally thought up by me, basically. Of the eight bosses, the first three came to me very quickly, but after that it got harder. (laughs) Katagi was extremely quick at translating my ideas into the game. I’d talk to him, and then two days later he’d show me the boss onscreen! In this way he kept me on my toes, always prodding “is the next boss ready yet?” (laughs)

—Let’s turn to the sound now, which I know everyone has been waiting to hear about. Hiroshi, how did you get involved in the Fantasy Zone development?

Kawaguchi: The game was already mostly complete when I joined. I had been working on Space Harrier, and as that wrapped up, Ishii approached me and asked me to write for Fantasy Zone. The first thing I did was record a one-song demo tape, which I played by hand. I took it to Katagi and asked his opinion. All-in-all the work went easily, with no complaints from anyone.

Katagi: Wasn’t there one rejected song…?

Kawaguchi: No, there was one song which someone said reminded them of kayoukyoku, but that ended up becoming the music for stage 7. When the team heard it, I think Katagi said it sounded a little off, but Yu Suzuki, who was standing behind him, said it was fine, and we used it as-is. Fantasy Zone needed a lot of songs, but the samba genre is one I love, so it was all good.

Katagi: I remember the deadline was a little tight though, right?

Kawaguchi: Yeah, that’s right. In the American version there’s a song with an extra melody in it, and I believe that melody doesn’t appear in the Japanese version because I ran out of time.

—How long was the Fantasy Zone development, ultimately?

Ishii: I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was about 8 months. The last month is where I remember it becoming a struggle, though.

Kondo: The game was only finished up to stage 2 then. We finally finished everything right at the start of Spring.

Katagi: But up until the release, the reception at Sega had been really negative. The location tests weren’t very positive either.

Ishii: There was pessimism from all quarters, from the top executives to the sales departments. “Why are they making a game like this…” Once it was released, though, both the pcb sales and the arcade income were very good. It’s pretty rare, for a game that’s unpopular internally to do that well commercially. The development itself was also unusual in that everything went well (and kept going well), so overall it was a pretty enjoyable project.

—Please give a final message for our readers today.

Kondo: At the time, I thought it was impossible for me to be able to draw in this style. During the development, my goal was to make something that women would want to play too, not just dyed-in-the-wool shooting fans… so when people see Fantasy Zone now, if it serves as an inspiration—that with effort and ingenuity anyone can create something new—I’ll be happy.

Katagi: A final message? Hmm.. how about this? 3D games aren’t the only good ones. (laughs) Also, in terms of the difficulty, we tuned Fantasy Zone to be beatable with the default, standard weaponry, so I hope players persevere and finish at least 1 loop.

Ishii: When I look back at Fantasy Zone now, I definitely can feel how it’s an 11 year old game. But if you actually play it, I think you’ll find it still feels fresh today. It can be enjoyed by anyone, men, women, children, and adults alike, and I think it shows how games like this existed even back in the day, you know? Actually, I have an idea for a sequel that I’ve been fleshing out in my mind, with a full story too. (laughs) It all depends on what the public wants, of course, but if possible I’d like to develop it for the MODEL 3 hardware, not the Saturn. But in the meantime, please enjoy the Sega Ages port of Fantasy Zone.

Fantasy Zone concept art. Designer Masaki Kondo comments that many of his characters were inspired by his love of comical manga artist Fujio Akatsuka. In the beginning, he also tried to give every character eyeballs as a unifying design motif, a remnant of which can be seen in the enemy base design.

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  1. “Snacks” are tiny bars in Japan usually run by an older female sole proprietor. Many of them feature mini-karaoke setups.

  2. The name is a play on words. The main character of this drama, Chiaki, refers to herself as “doji de noroma na kame”—”a clumsy talentless turtle.” The Fantasy Zone boss name re-arranges the letters to sound like a foreign name.

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