“I made that!” – 1991 Developer Interviews
From the October 1991 issue of Famitsu Tsuushin magazine comes “I Made That!”, a breezy feature that introduces the names behind a bakers’ dozen of then-popular or trendy games, with a little insight into their creation and game development in general. While the content here is fairly light, it does offer a rare glimpse of certain lesser known personages, such as Yoshihiro Kishimoto (RBI Baseball) and Akihiko Miura (Tetris2 + Bombliss).
portraits of the featured developers, L-R (top): AKIO, Tara-chan, Masato Masuda, Ryouji Amano, Shigeharu Umezaki, Setsu Muraki; (mid) Tadayuki Kawada, Akihiko Miura, Norihiro Sekizuka, Kenichi Kumakura, Kazuhiro Arita; (bottom) Kuniaki Kinoshita, ALEX, Naoto Oshima, Yoshihiro Kishimoto, Koichi Ishii, Tadayuki Hirono
Konami – Goemon/Gradius
Shigeharu Umezaki – Joined Konami after graduating from an Electrical Engineering program. Originally worked on MSX games, but starting with Aishi Senshi Nicol, he switched over to Famicom game development. His favorite game from another company is Mario.
Setsu Muraki – Joined Konami after studying design at college. Her first work was designing package and box art. Later she began working on game design, too. She hopes to one day create a fun fantasy game like Sonic.
Kuniaki Kinoshita – Originally worked in the PR department at Konami. Three years ago he moved to game development, and has since helped create many games. He currently acts as a supervisor for multiple development teams. His favorite non-Konami game is kawa no nushitsuri (River King).
—We specifically asked Konami if we could talk with the creators of the Goemon and Gradius series, so I’ve been really looking forward to this.
Kinoshita: Well, we have about 5 or 6 developers per game development team. Today we’ve brought one representative from each team.
Umezaki: They dragged me in here as the Gradius guy, I guess. (laughs)
Muraki: And I’m here on behalf of the Goemon team. Nice to meet you. (laughs)
—Thank you for coming! And Kinoshita, what games have you been involved with?
Kinoshita: Well, in the past I worked directly on developments too, but today I serve as director for each of our teams.
—So you said each team has 5 or 6 people on it?
Umezaki: Yeah. Three programmers, two designers, and one or two people working on music.
—Who comes up with the basic ideas for the games then?
Kinoshita: The first thing we do is draft a basic plan. We decide what genre we’re going to make… shooting, action, what-have-you. Then we assign a team and the game gets made.
Muraki: After that the team has internal discussions to flesh out the details. Our games are gradually built up that way, through the contributions of everyone’s ideas.
—How was it with Goemon?
Muraki: I really wanted to make something with fun backgrounds. So I looked at different photographs from matsuri (festivals) all around Japan, and made hundreds of rough sketches.
Muraki: Yeah. I showed them to the team as I made them, and we sort of narrowed down what we wanted to do that way. It was honestly so much fun!
—I see. (laughs) And how about Gradius?
Umezaki: This is true of action games as well, but the challenging thing about shooting games is setting the right difficulty.
Umezaki: Yeah. If it’s too difficult, beginners won’t be able to play, and if it’s too easy, veterans will complain… there’s the rub.
—Hah, I see. It makes sense.
Umezaki: One of the conditions for any game we make, is that it be playable and enjoyable by the majority of people. That consideration includes the controls, and it’s the biggest challenge we face in our developments.
Muraki: There’s a funny story related to that, with the designer who did the graphics for the final stage.
—Oh, what happened?
Muraki: The designer was at his house playing the game, and his Mom was watching. He wanted to show her the graphics he worked on at the final stage, but he kept dying over and over on the stage before that, and couldn’t progress any further… well, I guess it really wasn’t a funny story. (laughs)
—More of a tragedy. (laughs)
Muraki: Ever since then, he says he hasn’t been able to look at that stage.
Umezaki: Yeah. If you spend all this time and effort making something, but no one can play it, what was the point?
—By the way, how long does it take you to make a single game, start to finish?
Kinoshita: For an original game, 1 to 2 years. For a port, anywhere from 6 months to a year.
—How is your next development going?
Kinoshita: We’ve got a lot of buns in the oven now. But making our games fun, that’s the most fundamental and important thing. We hope you look forward to our future endeavors!
Irem – R-Type
AKIO – Attended design school, where he studied lettering. Upon joining Irem he was immediately assigned to the R-Type development. He likes horizontal STGs like Darius and Gradius, and medicine.
Tara-chan – It was during his carefree days of lazing about that AKIO invited him to Irem, and he began working there part-time. Between endless bug-checking of Famicom games, somewhere along the way he became a regular employee. A game lover, plain and simple.
—The R-Type games have been ported to many different consoles now, but which version were you two originally involved in?
Tara-chan: I was the planner for the arcade version of R-Type 2.
AKIO: I also worked on the arcade version. I did the character designs for R-Type 1 and 2.
—I see. By the way, what are these papers you’ve brought here?1
AKIO: This is some top secret, behind-the-scenes setting stuff.
—May I take a look at them?
AKIO: Sure. As you can see, at first, the R-9 was meant to transform. When that idea fell through, we re-used that design as a basis for the Cancer enemy.
—Interesting. Do you think I could get a copy of these…?
AKIO: Sorry. Who knows though, before long these images might end up circulating underground…
—I’ll just have to wait until then. When you’re designing a game, what kind of things do you pay special attention to?
Tara: Since people are paying money for the experience of playing your game, I try to eliminate as many “unpleasant” elements as possible so people can have a good time.
AKIO: I’m cognizant of the backgrounds. It’s pointless to put a bunch of amazing detail into them if it ends up making them hard to see.
—That’s true. And when you created the sequel R-Type II, how did you try to distinguish it from the first game?
Tara: Well, for weapons, we added new ideas like the Diffusion Wave Cannon, but we wanted to increase the number of items. Our original goal was “100 items!”
Tara: Yeah. We had also planned for R-Type to to have 2P simultaneous play too, but alas…
—Any interesting anecdotes to share from the development?
AKIO: For R-type I, we gave the enemies pervy names. Gomander, Scant… (laughs)2
Namco – Famista Baseball (RBI Baseball)
Yoshihiro Kishimoto – Born in Hyogo Prefecture. Joined Namco as a programmer, and created several arcade classics like Baraduke, Toy Pop, and Pac-Land. Currently works in the Namco Console Development division. His pseudonym is “KISSY”.
—You’ve been involved in the Famista games from the beginning, haven’t you?
Kishimoto: Yeah. Originally Namco had a rule that its developers couldn’t appear in public. So I know there were rumors—which I heard even from you guys at Famitsu—that the original Famista Baseball developers had all quit Namco a long time ago. (laughs) Recently Namco lifted that ban on publicity, though, so I’ve been able to show myself a bit more.
—Were there any games you referenced when creating Famista Baseball?
Kishimoto: Well, to give a concrete example, I’d say Great Baseball from the Sega Mark III. I thought it was really fun, but the movement was lacking. So I thought I’d try and make a better baseball game myself, for my own satisfaction.
—Did you have any inkling that it would become a huge hit while you were making it…?
Kishimoto: I did. It was getting rave reviews from the other developers at Namco, and actually, Famista Baseball had an unusual road to release. Since it was something I had created myself for fun, after it was completed I thought “this could really sell”, so I retroactively went and wrote a planning document for it… I mean, nowadays, that kind of thing would never happen. (laughs)
—How did you become a game designer?
Kishimoto: I originally joined Namco as a programmer, but I found that programming alone wasn’t satisfying enough. At that point I started designing my own games, and doing the programming too, and all the graphics by myself of course. I’m afraid to say that those little stubby characters in Famista Baseball are the extent of my artistic abilities, though. (laughs)
—Masanobu Endo was your senior by one year at Namco, but have you ever thought about striking out and creating your own independent game company like he did?
Kishimoto: I’m not really inclined to do that, personally. In a big company like Namco, if the game you develop ends up being a failure, it’s not the end of the company. So in the end I’m just happiest being able to make the games I want to make here. One of my programming colleagues at Namco was Satoshi Naito. He created the Family Circuit games (among others), and I considered him a good rival for me. We were always competing to see who got the bigger bonus that year. (laughs) Since he jumped over to Endo’s company, though, I’m afraid I don’t have a rival like that anymore at Namco.
Human – Fire Pro Wrestling/Formation Soccer
Ryouji Amano – Born in Fukushima. He transitioned from a musical career to the game industry, and is currently the section chief of the game development department at Human. His representative works include Formation Soccer and Final Match Tennis. He is currently working on an F1 game for the Super Famicom.
Masato Masuda – Born in Hokkaido. Impressed by Space Invaders, he joined the game industry. He currently works as both a game designer, and an instructor at the Human Creative School. F1 Triple Battle was also created by him.
—Can I ask you how you came to be game designers?
Masuda: It’s what I wanted to do. That was the biggest reason for me. When Amano and I joined Human though, the company only had 10 employees, and everyone sort of just did whatever they wanted to.
Amano: The company wasn’t even named Human yet at that time, either. For myself, I applied as a sound programmer, but I wasn’t able to do anything like that, and before I knew it I was making games… (laughs)
Masuda: Despite coming from a musical background, Amano was good at drawing, so it worked out. I’m awful at drawing myself…
Amano: I’ve seen your grade-school stick figures. (laughs)
Masuda: For a game designer to be unable to draw, that’s a big handicap. Since I can’t provide concrete illustrations, my planning documents all have to be taken on faith.
—Masuda, could you offer a word to anyone looking to get into game design?
Masuda: By all means, please consider enrolling at our Human Creative School. You can take classes led by real working game designers!
Square – Seiken Densetsu -FF Gaiden-
Koichi Ishii – In high school, Ishii submitted a game to that most famous of game maker’s contest, and his game won a prize. In college he brought his game design plans to Square, where they caught the interest of Hironobu Sakaguchi, and Ishii then began working there part-time. After graduating, he joined Square as a full-time employee, where he continues to work today.
—What was the first work you did at Square?
Ishii: Let’s see, it was right around the time the Dragon Quest craze was ramping up, I believe. The whole office went on a company trip to Hawaii, and during that trip I was told to start brainstorming RPG ideas for later use. (laughs)
—That RPG was Final Fantasy, wasn’t it?
Ishii: Yes. The battle scenes in Final Fantasy were my idea. The main thing I really wanted to do with that game, was focus on creating satisfying visuals. I thought it was odd that, for whatever reason, all the turn-based RPGs up to that point, including Dragon Quest and PC rpgs—they all seemed not to care much about the visual aspect. Of course, I suspect they didn’t mind leaving things up to your imagination, which is fine, but I thought that actually seeing your characters there on-screen would create a stronger emotional bond for the player…
—So that’s how the unique side-view battles came about in Final Fantasy, then.
Ishii: There were three elements I considered indispensable to those battle scenes: the backgrounds, your characters, and the monsters. The ideal combination, I thought, would be something that made you feel sad or affected when your characters die, like an action game—but at the same time something with enjoyable story and narrative elements, unlike most action games.
—Does your newest game, Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure), also reflect these ideas?
Ishii: With Final Fantasy it’s all about “the crystals”, and the world and magicalness of the game are owed to that conceit. However, I don’t think Final Fantasy showed much care for weapons themselves. One reason is that, at the time, my knowledge about weapons and different types of weapons was somewhat lacking… And so, since continuing my work, I’ve become more knowledgeable there, and it’s led to a new approach for game design.
Specifically, I’m talking about a game where the way you fight changes according to the weapons you use, and where each individual weapon feels different. For example, in reality pole-arms and spears are actually disadvantageous at close range, and morning stars are terribly heavy and hard to wield. That said, I still want something where it feels fun, above all, to swing all those weapons around.
—Square keeps putting out new games, and it’s amazing how different in mood and atmosphere each new one is.
Ishii: Yeah, you know… if that ever changed, and we stagnated, I think it’d be game over for us as a company. We want every one of our games to present players with a new kind of fun.
Game Studio – Wizardry Gaiden I
Norihiro Sekizuka – An “outsider” who originally worked at a steel company. Masanobu Endo was his high school classmate. When asked why he became a game designer, he answered, “Because there was no one else doing it, I guess…?”
—How were you involved in the creation of the Famicom port of Wizardry?
Sekizuka: I had almost no involvement with Wizardry. I only did debugging for Wizardry II, and for III, we wanted to do a significant remix of the PC version with regard to stats and so forth, so I worked as a lead designer on that one.
—What are some of the things you pay particular attention to when designing a Wizardry game?
Sekizuka: Part of Wizardry’s special appeal, I think, is that it should feel like there’s a capricious god living inside the cartridge. That’s how I want it to feel. If the player senses the hand of the developer too much, I think it’s off-putting.
—What was your concept for the newest Wizardry Gaiden, for the Game Boy?
Sekizuka: Being the Game Boy, I had originally aimed for it to be something that you could pick up and play easily… but once again it ended up being kind of hardcore-oriented. I’m sorry. (laughs) The beginning of the game should be welcoming for newcomers, but I’m afraid my affection for this series was too strong, and the latter half is a masochistic treat sure to delight any hardcore Wizardry fan. (laughs)
Atlus – Megami Tensei series
Kazuma Kaneko – Designer
Ryutaro Ito – Writer/Designer
Sawako Satou – Designer
Kazuki Fujioka – Designer
Masami Satou – Programmer
Yosuke Niino – Producer
—Please share how you all came to be residents at the Cathedral of Shadows.3
Kaneko: I start out as an animator, but as everyone knows… you can’t make a living that way. Around that same time, I had some friends telling me how good things were in the gaming industry.
Ito: I made good on different connections from my part-time jobs to end up at Atlus, basically. I don’t remember ever having an official interview, at least! I guess I’m what you call one of those “back door employees”… (everyone laughs)
Satou (Sawako): Atlus used to be all male employees, and I was hired at a time when they were specifically trying to bring some women on-board. Even beginners or people without a lot of experience were ok. I could draw, and knew accounting, which probably helped me out.
Niino: I used to work in the television industry. I was hired for a similar reason as the women, it seems… namely that I had previous experience as a television AD so I guess they were trying to bring on people with diverse skill-sets. (laughs) Satou here though, he’s our elite university recruit.
Satou (Masami): I was attending a technical college, but Atlus was the first name I saw when I opened up the recruitment magazines they had on campus. That’s it. (laughs)
Fujioka: Well I was deceived and for my first year, all I did was karaoke maintenance!! After that I made a teary-eyed appeal to my boss for a department change, and at last I was able to work on game design and planning.
—Do you have any message for aspiring game designers?
Everyone: Don’t do it! (laughs)
Niino: In our case at least, we work in teams, so you need to have a certain degree of personableness. You should probably be mentally prepared to be the lowest man on the totem pole for awhile, too…!
Hudson – Super Star Soldier
Tadayuki Kawada – Thanks to a friend he had at Hudson, Kawada would often visit and hang out in his college days (the office was near his school), and this led to his getting hired. Four months after joining Hudson, Kawada was put on the “Caravan STG Team” and traveled all around Japan promoting the Caravan events. He has made TV appearances as a “meijin” (game expert / personality) too.
—Hudson seems to do a lot of joint developments with outside companies.
Kawada: Yeah, actually my very first development was working with Atlus on Dungeon Explorer. My main job was to check the graphics and do the final game balancing.
—Hudson’s next joint-development would be Gunhed, with Compile, I believe?
Kawada: On that one, I worked as both a producer and an “advisor” of sorts, just offering my opinions—a real pain in the neck to everyone else, in other words. (laughs)
But working with Compile taught me a lot, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that. For that style of STG, I have to say I think Compile really took the lead in those developments, and Hudson had a more supporting role, just adding a little extra flavor here and there. Now we’re making Star Parodier (a follow-up to Super Star Soldier and Final Soldier), but after this we’re going to take a break for awhile. I’m thinking I want to work on an action game of some kind next.
Sega – Sonic/Phantasy Star
Naoto Oshima – Joined Sega after leaving a job in advertising, he considers his relative ignorance about games to be an advantage, as it’s helped him come up with many fresh ideas. He participated in the design and planning of Sonic, and succeeded in making his vision of a “Million Seller” game a reality.
ALEX – Attended a liberal arts school, where he majored in Law. Games like Dig Dug and Pengo were his introduction to gaming, and his inspiration for joining Sega. After working in the arcade department, he moved to console development, and has helped out on numerous SG-1000, Mark III, and Megadrive games.
—Oshima, you’ve worked on the Sonic series, correct? And Alex, you did the Phantasy Star games?
ALEX: Yeah. Though actually, I only worked on the first Phantasy Star, for the Mark III.
—There’s been some interesting rumors flying around about PSIV…
ALEX: Yeah. It’s looking amazing, really. (laughs) They don’t want to betray all the fans’ expectations.
—Speaking of sequels, Oshima, is Sonic 2 in development now?
Oshima: It is. It’s the same staff from the first game. The theme of this development is to challenge ourselves to push the Megadrive to its limits.
—Geez, Sonic 1 was already a technical feat in many ways. But you want to go past that?
Oshima: We’re refining it further, and scaling everything up.
—How do you come up with these “development themes” you mentioned?
ALEX: For Phantasy Star, it was wanting to do something better than Dragon Quest. For Sonic it was wanting to go beyond Mario.
Oshima: Anyone (and that includes fellow game developers like us) can look at Mario and tell that’s a game that was made very deliberately, with a lot of intention, and it’s something the makers spent a lot of time on.
ALEX: We have fewer staff than Nintendo.
Oshima: Yeah. So even if we had the same amount of time, we couldn’t make something as refined as Mario.
ALEX: Which led us to ask ourselves… that being the case, how could we distinguish ourselves from Mario?
Oshima: I’ve always been rather bad at games, to be honest. (laughs) So I wanted Sonic to be something you could play with just one button—no complicated 6-button controls for hardcore gamers or anything.
Compile – Aleste Series
Takayuki Hirono – Originally employed at NTT, Hirono wanted to continue doing creative work of some kind, so he joined Compile. He dreams of one day creating the 100% perfect game, and day and night devotes himself to game development.
—As one of the masterpieces of vertical scrolling, the Aleste games have been ported to a number of different consoles.
Hirono: Yeah, it all began with the MSX and Famicom versions of Zanac. At some point I decided I wanted to create an original game of my own, and of course, the Zanac name wouldn’t do for that. Then, while I was searching for a good name, I happened to see my friend’s doujinshi manga, which had the title “Aleste”.
Hirono: Actually, did you know that for the Aleste series, each one has had a different creator.
—Which did you do?
Hirono: Aleste 2 for the MSX was the one I was mainly involved with. I helped out a bit on the earlier Mark III version too, though.
—When you’re in the thick of game development, what kind of things do you pay special attention to?
Hirono: Mostly just making sure that this isn’t a game players will regret buying. Please look forward to the upcoming Super Aleste for the SFC!
Sedic – Tetris 2 + Bombliss4
Akihiko Miura – Miura loved games since he was child, and the early generation of handheld LCD games left a particular impression on him. He created his own PC games in high school to share with his friends. After leaving Chunsoft, he joined Sedic, where he continues working today.
—Please explain what led up to the creation of Bombliss.
Miura: About three years ago, BPS released a Famicom version of Tetris, but it left a lot to be desired: the controls were bad, it ended after clearing 25 lines, and so forth. I had a friend at Chunsoft, and we both used to play tons of Tetris on the Macintosh, and he was very disappointed too.
—I understand you then arranged a meeting with original creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, to formulate a strategy to address this lamentable situation. (laughs)
Miura: One of my colleagues at Sedic, Ishihara,5 had just put out a book on Tetris, “How to achieve 100,000 points in Tetris”, and he was good friends with Pajitnov.
When he found out he was visiting Japan, Ishihara and I began talking seriously about making a follow-up or sequel to Tetris, and we started brainstorming different ideas, which we then showed to Pajitnov.
From those ideas Pajitnov selected one he thought was particularly interesting looking, and that was our “exploding Tetris”, which became Bombliss. The development took two and half years, but we wanted to redeem Tetris and really do it right this time, so we took our time.
YuuYuu – River King (Kawa no Nushi Tsuri)
Kazuhiro Arita – Born in Fukuoka. He made arcade games but quit the industry for awhile, and jumped around between different jobs. After that, he returned to game development, and created River King all by himself. He currently works as a freelance game designer and programmer.
—Arita, before you settled into your current work, it seems like you sure changed jobs a lot!
Arita: I’ve had over 60 different jobs, maybe? None of them lasted very long though, nor did I receive any bonus. (laughs) It was thanks to all that experience, though, that I was able to create River King all by myself, doing everything from the programming down to the PCB production. Well, except for the visuals—I think those are very important in any game, so I passed that work off to a specialist.
—What was the concept behind River King?
Arita: The basis was my experiences as a child. Nowadays, if you live in a city, I guess you can’t really fish in the rivers there. For that reason I wanted to at least give children a simulated version of that experience.
—I understand you’re a passionate mountain climber too.
Arita: Yeah. Though it makes me sad to see, in places like Chichibu, how they’ve cut down all the old original forests and replaced them with artificial strands all planted in the same year.
—Quite the ecologist, I see.
Arita: No, but I am a naturalist. (laughs)
Face – Mahjong Gakuen
Kenichi Kumakura – Born in Tochigi prefecture. After graduating from art school, he joined Coreland. There he created the huge arcade hit “Gonbee no aimu soree” (Gombe’s I’m Sorry), the political satire game modeled after prime minister Kakuei Tanaka. He then moved to Face, where he created that famous STG “Honey in the Sky”.
—How did you get involved in game development?
Kumakura: I went to an art school for college, but when I looked at the job ads posted at school, the one that paid the higest wages was Coreland. (laughs) It looked like a place I could do computer graphics, too. I think a lot of my peers had the same thought, but in the end, that’s not the work I was assigned at Coreland. (laughs) I’ve also always played a lot of games in my personal time, too.
—I’ve heard that you were somewhat resistant to having Mahjong Gakuen be your “debut” as a game designer…?
Kumakura: Yeah, I wasn’t proud of that game. I was always a hardcore arcade guy, you know. I’d prefer if Gombe’s I’m Sorry was what I was known for, to be honest. That one has an interesting history behind it too. (laughs)
—What are some of the most important things you pay attention to, when developing a game?
Kumakura: The human relationships within the team. If the team doesn’t get along, your project isn’t going anywhere. You’ve got to use both the carrot and the stick skillfully.
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Unfortunately, Famicon Tsuushin didn’t print the design documents the interviewer is looking at here, so you’ll have to imagine them.↩
I’m not 100% sure what wordplay is going on here, though Gomander may be similar (to Japanese ears) to “manko”.↩
The place where demon fusion takes place in the Shin Megami Tensei games (obviously referring to Atlus itself here). Also called the Heretic Mansion.↩
Not to be confused with the NES game released as Tetris 2, a localization of Nintendo’s Tetris Flash. The Bombliss mode from Sedic/Chunsoft’s Tetris 2 was later ported to Game Boy and released overseas as Tetris Blast.↩
Tsunekazu Ishihara, a man who’d later produce the early Pokemon games and head The Pokemon Company.↩