The History of Jaleco – 2011 Developer Interview

The History of Jaleco - 2011 Developer Interview

The first of these two Jaleco interviews appeared in the book Famichuu Seishun Famicom Gekijou in 2011. Y-san, a manager who joined Jaleco in the Famicom era, shares his thoughts about the companies' famous franchises, including the numerous Moero! games (the baseball iteration of which is known in the US as Bases Loaded) and the many Ninja Jajamaru-kun games.

—Jaleco began selling Famicom games in 1985. Their first title was the shooting game Exerion, I believe.

Y-san: Yes, we had created games for the arcade and the MSX before this, but Exerion was our first foray into Famicom development.

—I've heard that the Famicom sales were incredible during that "Famicom Boom" era.

Y-san: Something felt wrong to me about calling it this (laughs), but we had a building called the "Exerion Building" then. The rumor was that the Famicom sales of Exerion were so good it paid for that building.

—Of course, when one thinks of Jaleco then, "Moeru!! Pro Yakyuu" (Bases Loaded) immediately comes to mind.

Y-san: We sold over 1.5 million copies. Baseball games, like Namco's Family Stadium (RBI Baseball), sold extremely well in those days. The controls are easy, and it's a game I personally love myself. Since Bases Loaded was a latecomer we were able to have more realistic AI algorithms, distinguishing us from the pack, I like to think.

—Yeah, Bases Loaded had that behind-the-pitcher perspective just like an actual TV broadcast, and it calculated the height of the ball. Those things made it feel more realistic.

Y-san: Yeah. And of course, the voice synthesis was also something new, I think. The Famicom "spoke" to you, it used the same angles as TV broadcasts, and character proportions were realistic too. You could hit a home run by bunting though. (laughs) For better and for worse, I think, it was a title that garnered a ton of attention from players. It had the benefit of being released during both the Famicom Boom and a baseball game boom.

Y-san, the semi-anonymous manager from Jaleco.

—Was the "bunt home run" added intentionally?

Y-san: No, I'm sure that wasn't done on purpose. It was probably a bug. Incidentally, Jaleco has a mobile content website called Jaleco Gyaresso, and there's an app you can download called "Moero!! Bunt Home Run!" (laughs)

—I want to try that... I'm curious, was having such a huge smash hit a burden for Jaleco?

Y-san: The truth is, the first Bases Loaded had bugs in the initial production run. We would get calls from young kids, "My copy of Bases Loaded is acting strange…" We said we'd fix it right away, but we missed the factory deadline for making revisions, so the whole dev team at Jaleco patched every copy manually. That fixed it.

—There were many sequels to Bases Loaded, also. They introduced features like the biorhythm system.

Y-san: But I think the one that made the biggest impact on players was the first game. The Bunt Home Run is from that early period too.

—Jaleco also went on to release other, unrelated games with the "Moero!!" title.

Y-san: We had a lot of games that were forerunners in their respective genres. But unfortunately, not all of them caught on in popularity. Of those that became series, there was the Moeru!! Junior Basket, Moeru!! Pro Tennis, and the very last, Moeru!! Judo WARRIORS.

—To be honest, those titles do feel very forced. (laughs)

Y-san: By the way, there was an overseas department, Jaleco USA, and they released a lot of titles too. They called Moeru Pro Yakyuu "Bases Loaded" over there. I understand it was very popular in America too.

—I imagine it'd have to be, if it built the Moeru Pro Building. (laughs) What was Jaleco like back in those days, by the way?

Y-san: There was this feeling that we were moving forward, making progress. The President himself was that kind of person too. He kept up with what we were doing and always wanted to keep going forward, pushing the envelope, doing new things. I don't know if this is the right expression or not, but he was something of a "sports guy"—that's the image I had of him, at least. And as far as morale, while the healthy sales kept us busy, it also kept us highly motivated.

To be honest, things like staying overnight at the office, that was an everyday occurrence for the development team. They all did it without a peep of objection. I think a lot of it had to do with the very real success they were seeing with games they themselves directly had a hand in—that must have been a huge motivation.

A video showing off the famous "Bunt Home Run" in the first Moero!! Pro Yakyuu (Bases Loaded). Peak nostalgia for a certain generation of Japanese gamers, for sure.

—I remember the entire games industry felt like it was moving forward in those days.

Y-san: Yeah, and for a short period then, Jaleco had around 400 employees, with most of them working in game development. We did some outsourcing and subcontracting too, but by and large the majority of our games were developed in-house by Jaleco. That goes for both arcade games and Famicom games… Jaleco was a company that basically put in-house development first.

—Was the famous Jaleco trademark logo also devised during this period?

Y-san: Yeah, though it's not used anymore. The circle is meant to represent "play", while the three wavy lines represent "entertainment", "technology", and "creativity." Like slapping Moero!! in front of everything, I guess it's a bit strained too. (laughs) Regardless of the genre, Jaleco was a company that always valued and prioritized gameplay, and I think the same basic concept continues in the company today. Oh, and that trademark was called the "watermelon mark" by Jaleco employees, because of its appearance.

—Were the development teams divided up according to different genres back then?

Y-san: No, not by genres, but by platform (console or arcade). Of course they worked together, but the teams themselves were separate. Arcade games were often ported to consoles afterwards, and sometimes vice-versa. There was an arcade version of Exerion, for example. On a side note, Exerion actually had a sequel. It was called Exerizer (Sky Fox). It was arcade-only. It was a very weird game, with bikini girls and dinosaurs for enemies… perhaps that's why no further sequels were made, and it wasn't ported to home console either. It was an extremely popular game amongst some of the developers though.

—I also think it's impressive how the Jajamaru-kun games have spanned so many different genres.

Y-san: There's a lot of Jajamaru games, but the devs didn't limit themselves to just one or two genres. (laughs) There were action games, RPGs… no adventure games though. Jajamaru-kun's face looked quite different too depending on the title. On the other hand, Suchie-Pai's appearance remained constant throughout her many games.

The shifting image of Jajamaru-kun. On the right is the first game, Ninja Jajamaru-kun, which has become the most recognized image of the character. The middle game shows a more "ikemen" (handsome) Jajamaru, while the left gives him a bit of a shonen manga look with more sharply drawn eyes.

—Yeah, Jajamaru-kun looks like a completely different person in some games. (laughs) Why did the genres, and his appearance, change so much?

Y-san: I think they were just chasing what was popular at the time. (laughs) The first Jajamaru-kun game is a standard action game, and after that came the sidescroller Jajamaru-kun no Daibouken, which came out right during the platformer boom. Later Jaleco released Jajamaru-kun no Ninpocho, which was an RPG.

—That was a pretty bold move, to go from action to RPG.

Y-san: Well, RPGs were popular then, so it was like, "Ok then... shall we make a Jajamaru RPG?"

—I definitely feel like the visuals were following the trends of the time too. Jajamaru-kun looks completely different in the later games.

Y-san: Yeah. (laughs) Princess Sakura looks totally different too. And later on we released Jajamaru Gekimaden. That was an action-rpg.

—Despite never reaching that "million sales" level of popularity, there doesn't seem to have been anything like a single, controlling piece of concept art for Jajamaru-kun's design.

Y-san: That's right. It was basically like, so long as you used the Jajamaru-kun name and used other things from the setting, anything goes. That's good and bad: there was freedom, but no unity.

—Was the company policy more like, "just get the game out!" ?

Y-san: Well, one thing is for sure, they never thought of it as a flagship title.

—But unexpectedly, it became that.

Y-san: I remember there was the Jajamaru Popcorn vending machine, but for some reason he was colored blue, not red.

—Again different from the game. (laughs)

Y-san: The Jajamaru Popcorn vending machine was interesting. You can still find it in a few stores, I believe. Jajamaru speaks to you and then cooks the popcorn right there for you, and for some reason the plastic corn which Jajamaru was holding would light up and flash. Also, he had this sort of katana-looking thing attached on his backside, but it wasn't attached very securely, so it was always falling off. (laughs) If you just slightly bumped into it, off it fell. The flag with Princess Sakura's seal came off easily too.

—That's so cool that he spoke—even though he doesn't say a word in the games! (laughs)

Y-san: He spoke in time with the music, but I could never tell whether he was saying "oishiku na~re, pokopokopo~n" or "oishiku na~re, poppuko~n" (laughs) 1

—How big was this vending machine?

Y-san: Somewhere around 2 meters… I believe. It was fairly wide too. He was so large I imagine kids didn't find him very cute.

The rare and enigmatic Jajamaru Popcorn vending machine! Sadly it doesn't look like the eyes work on this one.

—I can see it being very nostalgic for their father's generation, though.

Y-san: If it isn't broken, then the eyes move too. They light up, and sort of pop out in time with the popcorn cooking. One time I saw a bunch of those Jajamaru's lined up for maintenance, and hearing their voices sound off together like a chorus, they actually appeared in my dreams that night. (laughs)

—The Suchie-pai series was one of the first to introduce "moe" elements.

Y-san: I believe the Suchie-pai series itself really originates with illustrator Kenichi Sonoda and her voice actor. That was a big part of their being made.

—Having the same illustrator throughout the entire series, and choosing a famous voice actor early on, really distinguish it from other games.

Y-san: I think mahjong games with cute girls existed before that. But I don't think any game had involved a voice actor so prominently, or put so much effort into the animation, either.

—Yeah, while there were certainly erotic elements, it felt less like one of those arcade strip mahjong games and more like something aimed at anime fans.

Y-san: Seta's Super Real Mahjong was also a bit anime-ish, I think. Suchie-pai, however, wasn't made to be an eroge so much as it was a "moe" style game. That was the spirit it was made in… though the story doesn't match that. (laughs) Actually, Jaleco also drew a lot of realistic-looking women, for what we call "strip Mahjong" games. In that sense too, though, it was a pretty bold choice to make a game like Suchie-pai which wasn't mainly strip mahjong. I think they had a clear concept of what they wanted to do from the start.

—That's the most important thing to have.

Y-san: Suchie-pai also took some detours, or rather, there were some "derivative" works created from it. But the basic production concept was the same throughout the series. The same people were involved the whole way through and continued to have input, so the image never changed very much.

Suchie-pai and Clarice from City Connection, two Jaleco characters who may have been forerunners of the recent "moe" trend. The Suchie-pai flyer prominently advertises the participation of designer Kenichi Sonoda and voice actor Mika Kanai.

—Personally, I really loved City Connection. It had a real "pop" appeal that made it popular overseas too, I hear.

Y-san: Yes, we sold it outside of Japan. It was released pretty much as-is there.

—For those who don't know, it's an action game where you ride in a car and paint the ground. The music is great too.

Y-san: It has great gameplay, of course, but I think the girl Clarice was also part of its appeal. She was quite popular.

—Was that a deliberate attempt to tap into the "bishoujo" appeal, even before Suchie-pai?

Y-san: I'm fairly certain it wasn't planned that way from the start, no. With Suchie-pai and those later games, that element becomes a lot more obvious. Clarice only appears at the end for a small scene after you beat it. Normally you're just driving around so you never even see her face.

—Another notable Jaleco game was Mississippi Satsujin Jiken (Murder on the Mississippi).

Y-san: That one doesn't appear on the Virtual Console either. It was made at a time when adventure games were somewhat rare.

—It's an adventure game, but there's pitfalls, knifes that fly out of nowhere at you, and sudden Game Overs! (bitter laugh) It's a very shocking game in one sense.

Y-san: It has a unique atmosphere. I understand people speak with enthusiasm about it online, and there's been calls for it to be re-released from players who want to try it.

—Now that I think of it, though, it's hard to imagine it appealing to elementary school kids today, you know?

Y-san: Yeah. If it was merely a hard game, that would be one thing, but there's actually a number of illogical things that don't make sense in it.

—Another thing I wanted to ask about was Jaleco's cartridges. For some reason they were bigger than other companies...?

Y-san: That's true. For some reason, in the latter days of the Famicom our carts got bigger and had those covers. I don't know the reason for that… but I don't think there was any deep meaning behind it. Being bigger just made them seem a little more special. The space wasn't needed for more memory or anything. (laughs)

—Please leave a final message for readers today.

Y-san: For all the people who have supported the Jaleco brand and our games throughout the years, we will continue to release new content for you. I hope you continue to enjoy Jaleco's games for many years to come.


Jaleco - 1986 Developer Interview

originally featured in BEEP magazine

Atsumi: I want to return to the essence of video games found in the first wave of games, the period from Pong to Space Invaders. What caused the massive cultural upheaval then? That's a question I want us to think about once again.

Right off the bat with the difficult stuff! These are the words of Norihiro Atsumi, a member of Jaleco's Research and Development team. At first glance, he has the aura of an artist about him, and before I realize it I found myself feeling flustered… I'm no good at these difficult topics!

Atsumi: That's what I say publicly. But inside, what I truly feel, is that I'm worried the ideas for games are running out, and I think we had better start trying to experiment with new things. (laughs)

Phew, thank goodness. Now we're back to a topic I can understand! Go on…

Atsumi: Recent games, including the Famicom, are trying way too hard to chase the trends they think players want. These games aren't being made with a creator's spirit. Putting in too many hidden moves and characters—we have to rethink that.

In other words, players and the mass media got all excited about "hidden features", and then game developers ended up falling all over themselves trying to jump on that bandwagon. That explains Atsumi's comments about "returning to the essence" and the need to "re-think" things.

Norihiro Atsumi (1986)

It's certainly admirable to always be open to re-examining yourself. Those who would call themselves game makers must take that stance!

Atsumi: I see Famicom games as essentially the same as arcade games. That is our basic thinking at Jaleco. An arcade game that isn't interesting won't be an interesting Famicom game either. I often hear the opinion that because Famicom games can be played for a long time, without the worry of inserting coins, that makes them different from arcade games. But when it comes to time, with all video games, the big issue is whether the first three minutes are interesting or not. In that sense I think they're exactly the same, Famicom and arcade games.

However, there are differences in the content of the games. Arcade games require that players come out to the game centers with money in hand, so they need to have some special appeal beyond what the Famicom can provide. On that point Famicom games are much easier to make. Put simply, it's like the difference between movies and TV. I think this is something we're going to have to be cognizant of in the future as game creators.

Here we changed the topic a bit, and Atsumi shared his thoughts on the highs and lows of making video games.

Atsumi: The hardest parts of game development are the beginning and the end. It doesn't matter what genre—when you have to start from a blank page with game design, and then when you're putting the finishing touches on your game, those are the hardest times. The fun exists side-by-side with the struggle, though.

No pain, no gain, right?! I took the opportunity here to ask about the recent improvements we've seen in sound and graphics, and whether creating those data assets has been a challenge.

Atsumi: Creating characters is a great deal of fun. Same with making music. I think that's the funnest part of game development, actually.

Jaleco's unassuming HQ in 1986. It's unclear whether this is the "Exerion Building" mentioned in the interview above.

Video games are evolving at a rapid pace, making it hard to predict what will happen even a year out, but I dared Atsumi here to speculate on what games might look like 10 years in the future…

Atsumi: I think it's going to be all about 3D. If we can manage to get real, full-bodied 3D in place, I can see that being as big of a culture shock as Space Invaders was. We may also see games that engage the other human senses: smell, touch… perhaps even our sixth sense! I also think it's likely that controls will shift away from just joysticks and buttons, and we'll have more interesting ways to interact with games.

In any event, right now arcade games and Famicom games aren't all that different from each other, but 10 years in the future, I think there will be many different forms of media available.

Finally, I asked about Jaleco's relationship with players and the media. This one was answered by sales specialist Hiroto Kikuchi.

Kikuchi: It was a real problem for us when BEEP criticized Argus. That game was specifically designed to be a return to the roots of shooting, and I wonder if BEEP was aware of the creators' intent when they criticized it? At the very least, I wonder if you couldn't phrase your critiques more like, "I thought Argus was such-and-such, but you should try it for yourself." Many people who read your write-up ended up never playing it all.

It is undoubtedly true that gaming publications like BEEP hold a lot of power and sway with the public: "this game is bad, so don't play it." For BEEP, we want to see the game industry continue to progress so we sometimes do make bold criticisms, but we also must not make light of the influence our articles can have. It's a problem we will need to think deeply about.

Atsumi: I wonder what players are finding fun these days. I feel like they've become addicted to hidden characters and hidden techniques, and the way they're playing these games is accordingly becoming weirder. I feel the mass media encourages this too.

Another harsh observation. It is again true that recent gaming articles have focused heavily on finding hidden things in games—despite the fact that the real pleasure of gaming lies elsewhere. Older games didn't have those things, yet they were still plenty of fun!

Atsumi: That's why we're trying to return to the basics. But if I can be perfectly honest with you, I'm not entirely sure that this is the best approach or not. We'd love for someone to tell us what we should do here—that's where we're at right now.

To all the Jaleco developers, who have given us so many great survival and motocross games, thank you for sharing your valuable opinion with us today. We hope you keep making interesting games for us!

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  1. The second is the intended line, akin to some magic incantation: "become delicious, popcorn!", while the first is nonsensical as far as I can tell.

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