Jaleco STG – Roundtable Developer Interview

Jaleco STG – Roundtable Developer Interview

This round-table interview appeared in Shooting Gameside #8 as part of special on Jaleco STG. The developers discuss the formation of Jaleco’s late-80s/early 90s arcade department, their connection with developers NMK, and the making of Plus Alpha and E.D.F. particularly. This was a fun translation because so little is known about this minor chapter of STG history; I hope the editors at STG Gameside can also track down the NMK developers sometime soon!

Akihiro Yoshida – Programmer
A-Kun – Programmer
Tadaaki Moriya – Designer
Kouji Etou – Graphics
Tsukasa Tawada – Composer

—Shall we start with everyone introducing themselves?

Yoshida: The first work I ever did was the bouncing Jaleco logo you see on our Famicom Disk System games. After that I created the Mega System 1 sound drivers for our arcade pcbs, and I worked on the items and movement patterns of the Kabura-army enemies from Jaleco’s STG Plus Alpha. After that I worked almost exclusively on console titles, and I was with Jaleco until the last decade.

Moriya: I was on my third job when I quit and joined Jaleco. When I joined there was almost no one working in the arcade department. The first games I made were Iga Ninjutsu Den (Ninja Kazan) and Takeda Shingen (Samurai Fighter). After that I did the planning for Plus Alpha, Soldam, and Yousei Monogatari Rodland. I worked at Jaleco until the mid-90s.

Tawada: I did the music for the original arcade versions of Plus Alpha, Yousei Monogatari Rodland, and E.D.F. When I joined Jaleco there was no one else working in-house on music, so I had to somehow figure out how to do everything myself. While there, I was involved in almost all our in-house developed consumer and arcade games.

Etou: I think I joined Jaleco in… 1987? Jaleco had just released Ginga Ninkyouden. In their hiring ad, they said they wanted an illustrator (not a pixel artist or graphic artist), and I thought, hey, I do illustration, so I applied… but on my first day they handed me a computer and made me do pixel art. (laughs)

I was involved in the development of Takeda Shingen, Iga Ninjutsu Den, Rodland, and others. Moriya and Tawada were hired soon after me, and thus Jaleco’s arcade division was formed.

Jaleco's Plus Alpha.

A-kun: I joined Jaleco at the same time as Yoshida. From the start I had wanted to work on arcade games, but I didn’t get the chance for awhile, and was stuck doing console titles. Besides games, Jaleco had aspirations to get involved in securities trading, so I ended up making software for the Famicom that would check the price of stocks and so on. In fact, that stock trading program was the first thing I made. After that I worked on the arcade titles Mahjong Kakumei and F1 Grand Prix Star. Of everyone here, I was the last to join the arcade group.

—It sounds like the late 80s, when you were all hired, was when Jaleco’s in-house arcade development really got started.

Moriya: We had no senpai (senior employees) at Jaleco. Someone who had worked there before us had started Takeda Shingen, but they had to quit halfway through. I ended up restarting the project all by myself.

A-kun: When Yoshida and I joined Jaleco, all the older employees were just quitting. So as soon as we started we were assigned to a team, and for 2 years we worked tirelessly on every aspect of game development. Tawada was the only one working on sound, too. You know, you look at Sega at that time, and they had a whole sound team, and I thought Jaleco would be the same way when I joined. I was really surprised to find out he’d have to do it all–both console and arcade games–by himself.

Yoshida: It lent all our games a real “handmade” feel.

A-kun: Definitely. When we’d talk with the fewer older employees who remained about our favorite games, they’d say things like “I made that PCB!” I was blown away that these programmers also did all the PCB hardware design themselves too. (laughs)

Tawada: But when I think back on it now, the fact that we had no senpai or anyone else to explain the work to us really forced us to discover things for ourselves. And I think it’s precisely because of this that we came up with interesting ideas and techniques.

A rare piece of Plus Alpha fanart, from pixiv user QKAT.

—As this is a STG magazine, I’d now like to focus on the STG work you did at Jaleco. To start with, I think many people associate the Jaleco name with the STGs that NMK developed, like Argus and such.

Yoshida: Yeah, I think so. One of the main reasons I joined Jaleco was because of Argus.

A-kun: Me too. Before I started working in game development I didn’t know anything about subcontractors like NMK. So when I learned Argus and many Jaleco-produced games were actually made by NMK it was quite a shock. I think the games Jaleco developed in-house have strong characters, cute girls, and a comical tone. As those developers before us had quit by the time we joined, that genealogical line of Jaleco was perhaps temporarily cut, but I like to think that we carried on the tradition with Plus Alpha, Rodland, and other games. In that sense, I feel you can see a clear division betwen Jaleco’s in-house games and NMK’s more hardcore, difficult games.

Etou: NMK’s technical abilities were incredibly high. Every time I visited their offices I was amazed.

—Did the in-house team at Jaleco have a sense of rivalry with NMK?

Etou: At the offices there was a kind of rivalry, yeah.

A-kun: Personally I thought they were just the coolest guys. I think Jaleco’s mindset was to release easy, “warm and fuzzy” games. But I wanted to make tough games, so I admired NMK, who were able to represent Jaleco’s harder side. My favorite NMK game was Tenseiryuu (Saint Dragon). I heard that game came about because Jaleco’s President Kanazawa saw R-Type and challenged NMK, telling them “I bet you guys could never make a game like that.” Before Kanazawa even realized it, they had finished Tenseiryuu.

Yoshida: It took an insane amount of technical ability to make that game so quickly.

A-kun: It’s funny, that kind of gamesmanship between the president and NMK. Actually, there was a period where Jaleco employees and NMK would go on company trips together. We were that close.

Etou: Though I don’t know how much NMK liked those trips. (laughs)

According to an ex-Tecmo developer, NMK formed from the Tecmo team that made Mighty Bombjack. Argus, NMK’s first STG, was very popular in its time, featuring novel ideas like infinite L-R scrolling and a landing sequence. A good history of NMK’s games (in Japanese) can be read here.

—You said earlier that Jaleco’s games were easier compared with NMK… would you say Plus Alpha is a good example of that?

A-kun: I remember one of the developers on the Plus Alpha team was an idol otaku, so he put things like images of Noriko Sakai in the background. If the screen brightness is low you can’t see them, but if you adjust your monitor they’ll pop right up.

Moriya: Yeah, and also, at the place where you restart if you die on the last boss, there’s “kusoge-” written. (laughs) On the CRT monitors back then no one knew about it, but on LCDs today those easter eggs can be clearly seen.

Tawada: Our gametesting back then was pretty lax. (laughs)

Moriya: Someone deliberately left in a bunch of hidden bombs too.

Yoshida: Ah, that was me. (everyone laughs)

—In contrast with Plus Alpha there’s E.D.F., which reminds one of the hardcore style of STGs made by NMK.

Tawada: I think that was around the time Jaleco hired a number of new people, increasing the size of our development team. In addition to the games planned by Moriya, you now had games planned by another group, who were designing tougher titles. So we had a few more people in-house who were committed to making STGs for hardcore fans, I think. The designer of E.D.F. described it as “A man’s STG. I want to make a STG that achieves pure, undiluted shooting pleasure.” I wish there were more STGs that were able to ignore concerns about sales and have a hardcore, enthusiast level of difficulty.

Having said that, I must also say that I was never able to get past stage 2 of E.D.F. (laughs)

A-kun: The music and sounds in E.D.F. were extremely good. The bass was especially heavy and cool.

Tawada: The songwriting method I had for E.D.F. was really crazy. FM sound could do really diverse, colorful sounds, so wherever I had an open channel I’d add FM subfrequencies and tones for extra color. Using stereo ambience I was able to add a deep luster to the sound, and before I knew it I was fully utilizing all 8 channels. Naturally the underlying data was a byzantine maze, too. Yoshida, who made the sound driver, broke into a cold sweat when he saw that the game’s slowdown was also causing the tempo of the music to slowdown. (laughs) But after doing many optimizations and improvements, we finally were able to achieve that sound you hear today.

Tsukasa Tawada's memorable soundtrack for E.D.F.

Yoshida: E.D.F. used the full channel capability of the sound chip and had changing tones and textures. All that made for a real programming challenge. I think I could do it better today, but I was no technical wizard back then so I really struggled. Still, I pushed my abilities to the limit, using all I knew, so it turned out ok.

Tawada: There’s a reason the music for E.D.F. was like that. At the time I had already decided to quit Jaleco. I thought this would be my final work there, so I was resolved to leave, as my legacy at Jaleco, the best work I had ever done. And so things started getting so complicated even I didn’t know what was going on, causing Yoshida no end of blood, sweat, and tears. (laughs)

Yoshida: Nowadays you have the internet, instructional materials, and a wealth of information available, but back then there was almost nothing, so I had to invent my own methods in order to realize what Tawada wanted to do. But I think it was probably for the best that I had that kind of experience. It means that even today if Tawada and I were to work together on music, I’d be able to understand his ideas quite readily.

Tawada: Yeah. Thanks to my experience working with Yoshida on E.D.F., I was hired for the Pokemon development.1 A single experience like that can really help you out for years, even decades ahead.

—After E.D.F, NMK released Wangan Sensou (Desert War), and Jaleco developed Game Tengoku, a STG with an easy, lighthearted world populated with Jaleco characters.

A-kun: Game Tengoku was designed by the people who did E.D.F. and Idol Janshi Suchie-pai.

Moriya: They really loved STGs. Around the time of the Plus Alpha location test, those guys were actually working part-time at Jaleco’s game center.2 You could find them there having long, drawn-out arguments about games… “No! STG isn’t supposed to be like that!” (laughs)

Etou: There were actually a lot of people who started out working at one of Jaleco’s game centers and then moved into development from there. I kind of think that’s what Jaleco did with people who applied for a job: send them to work in the game center first. Then if they proved their stripes they could join the development team.

—Were Yoshida and A-kun the only two of you left at Jaleco at that time?

Moriya: That’s right.

A-kun: Gratia, which came out after Game Tengoku, was actually designed by Moriya. He had completed it much earlier, and had planned to release it slightly later.

—Looking at chronology of your releases, Gratia was the last STG developed by Jaleco.

Moriya: Yeah. When you think about it that way… (painful laugh) We worked hard on it, but the truth is, it wasn’t well-received by players. Of course we had wanted to make a vertical STG like Plus Alpha, which we preferred, but the timing was such that it would have conflicted with another game that we had been subcontracted to make, so we changed our plans to a horizontal STG. We tried a lot of different things with Gratia, changing the perspective, adding more depth to the visuals, but alas…

Second Earth Gratia gameplay.

—Yeah, it was released at a time when the STG genre was becoming more narrowly focused on catering to hardcore players, sadly.

A-kun: Jaleco’s STGs were always on the easier side. NMK tried to follow in the footsteps of Seibu Kaihatsu and Toaplan and make harder, cool STGs, but at Jaleco we kept it mild to the end. Personally I adored E.D.F., but I think there’s many people who remember Jaleco STG mainly for Plus Alpha.

Tawada: Back then I heard people complaining here and there that STGs were getting a little too difficult. So I think there must have been many people who wanted a milder game that anyone could enjoy. Unfortunately the mainstream trend was that STG was gradually becoming more and more hardcore, so our games were not commercially successful.

Etou: An unavoidable gap started to form between what arcade operators wanted and what players wanted: the game centers needed income, but the players wanted to play for a long time. Now that I think of it, Jaleco did have a lot of employees who shared and understood that player’s perspective. If we ended up making a game so hard we couldn’t play it ourselves, something that required ESP-level abilities, we’d think “hey, I can’t play this!” and just lower the difficulty. That aspect of game development is tough to get right.

—If you could sum up this period of Jaleco STG in one thought, what would it be?

Tawada: Hmm, I’d say it was a period when games could easily accomodate a variety of personalities and design sensibilities.

Moriya: STG got more and more difficult, and I think that feeling of simply playing for fun got lost somewhere along the way. Back then there were players of all skill levels so you couldn’t make your game too difficult. Today you can’t even sell a STG without an autofire button; that has meant that, to a certain extent, enemies have had to become stronger or the game will be boring. It makes difficulty balancing a real challenge. We were thinking of those things when we made our final game Gratia, and we tried to change our perspective a bit, but I think we failed there.

Tawada: I feel the same, but I think there's still many people out there who want to play a lighter, easier STG. If we start seeing more easier games like Moriya has described, then we could see an increase in STG players as well. And perhaps those who grew up on harder games will find something novel in an easy STG, too.

A-kun: I’m an NMK fan myself. I spent a ton of time on P-47 and Tenryuusei, so I’m fine with harder games. But I think there’s a value to having a company like Jaleco that pursued game design along a different vector…. still, I’ll never give up my NMK! (everyone laughs)

In 2007 Jaleco created a sequel to Plus Alpha, “Plus Beta.” Unfortunately it was only released for jp Yahoo cell phones.

If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!

  1. Tawada worked on Pokemon Collliseum, Pokemon Battle Revolution, and similar titles from 2003 to 2006.

  2. Jaleco, like Konami and Namco, also once ran their own game centers: “you&you” and “gareso.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *