Kasco and the Electro-Mechanical Golden Age

Kasco and the Electro-Mechanical Golden Age

Alongside Sega and Namco, Kasco was one of the first companies in Japan to make their own electro-mechanical games. Told through former employee anecdotes, this important interview from CV Odyssey examines Kasco's history amid the pre-Invaders landscape of the 60s/70s. Although an attachment to EM technology prevented Kasco from making the leap to genuine video games, they created what was probably the first color video game system in Japan.

Kansei Seiki Seisakusho (shortened to “KASCO”) was founded in 1955 by engineer Kenzou Furukawa. It was officially incorporated three years later. Their first product was the “Stereo Talkie” device. Requested by the Hankyu Department chain for their rooftop stores, the Stereo Talkie was a magic lantern-type device intended to help customers find their way around the mall. It was a big hit for Kasco, selling several thousand. Kasco later repurposed the Stereo Talkie as an entertainment machine redubbed the “Viewbox,” and it too was a long-running hit.

Kenji Nagata joined Kasco in 1967 at the age of 19 and worked in the 2nd Manufacturing Division of the company, where he was assigned to the assembly of Kasco’s game machines. His future wife Mitsuko joined the company in 1972, and together the two of them experienced firsthand Kasco’s electro-mechanical golden age.

Kenji: Kasco was originally located in the Senbo area of Kyoto, but it later moved to the western outskirts of town. It’s only one small part of the industrial building that’s there today, but back then I understand it was about 18,000 sq. feet.

There were two factory rooms in a two-story building, and also an attached dining hall and dormitory. Each factory space would have about 6-8 people working there.

Kenji and Mitsuko Nagata, former Kasco employees.

—I imagine there was a lot of difficulties involved with industrial production back then?

Kenji: Not really—there were definitely some injuries, but we worked at a reasonable pace. We didn’t try to push it, and would manufacture about 20 units per week, and anywhere from 80 to 120 in a month. Thanks to that relaxed pace, we didn’t have much trouble with workplace injuries. No one did overtime either.

—It sounds pretty laid back.

Mitsuko: It was, which meant that the demands of management and the way we worked didn’t exactly match up. Management would often tell us to make more.

Kenji: But they never barged into the factory room and yelled at us or anything. It felt more like a family-business in a way. Management would get mad, but then just go home.

No matter how busy things were, we always took a break for tea at 10AM and 3PM. That kind of thing was unheard of at other workplaces. Kasco was only my second job, but it surprised me. During the Asamo-Sanso hostage crisis, we all stopped working and just watched it. That kind of thing never happened at other companies! I can’t really say if it was a good thing or a bad thing, though… (laughs) When someone important died, like the prime minister or cabinet minister, we would get the whole afternoon off.

A Pioneer in the Games Industry

Video games first began appearing in Japan around 1974-1975. In the post war decade from 1964-1974, however, you had electro-mechanical machines such as rocking horses, bagatelle boards, simple novelty games, and target shooting games. Larger pinball and slot machines were also very popular. These were installed in small spaces inside department stores, amusement centers, and movie theatres called “game corners.”

This was the era in which Kasco released their first products: amusement machines devised from the abundant ingenuity and technical expertise of engineer Kenzou Furukawa.

Kenji: Our first amusement machine was a magic lantern device. It was called the “Viewbox”, and you could peer into it and look at picture slides. We had pictures from Japanese folktales, or small 5/6 panel comic strips. All it did was project those slides. Later we added the ability to play back music, also.

The “Stereo Talkie.” Below: customers at a department store take a peek.

Mitsuko: We installed one in zoos too, for caged monkeys to look through.

Kenji: At the mall rooftop spaces, we installed mechanical rocking horses and later the Mini Drive, but our really popular breakthrough was the Indy 500. It was one of those rear image projector games. We sold 2000 of these in Japan, and overseas another company released a knock-off game that sold over 10,000, and won a prize, I believe.

—Wow! That’s amazing.

Kenji: President Furukawa, in any event, was truly an amazing person. His engineering skills were on another level too—he was really ahead of his time in what he wanted to do, technically.

We also imported products from overseas at Kasco, so we had a lot of rare stuff at the time in our office, like prototype Jukeboxes, 8-track cassette players and karaoke sets. We tried to sell those to onsen inn proprietors and the like, but they were too new, and we didn’t make any sales. Our salesperson, Komiyama, really did his best though. And that’s another thing I think was amazing about Kasco, that we were out there leading the market with all these brand new games.

—Right. Without Kasco leading the charge, who knows what the industry would have looked like…! Were there game centers back then?

Mitsuko: There were. They weren’t called game centers, though—they were called “yuugijou” (“game space”). After awhile people started calling them game centers, I think.

Kenji: There weren’t many in Kyoto.

—Kenji, were any of Kasco’s machines your invention?

Kenji: No, I was only involved in manufacturing and production. I wasn’t an engineer. We just wired and built everything according to the design blueprints we were given.

—What was the process like for making a game, back then?

Kenji: President Furukawa would come up with an idea. For example, you know the Oh! Mouretsu commercials? He had an idea for a game where you’d lift girls skirts in time to some rhythm. Next some design blueprints would be drawn up. There were only two or three engineers then—not many, right?! And President Furukawa did most of the work himself, the others were more like his assistants.

Prototypes would then be created from those blueprints, usually about 10 units. We did “location tests”, placing them in popular spots all around Japan—like Daimaru and Kyoto Tower, for Kyoto, or the Tokyo Tower bowling alley in Tokyo. By and by, the owners of other amusement spaces would hear about the game, and come asking us how much a unit would cost. That’s how we sold them, basically, by word of mouth. If the buzz was good, we’d sell a lot.

—I imagine each machine was different, but how much did one unit usually cost?

Kenji: Indy 500 was about 800,000 yen [[roughly 8000 USD]], I believe. It cost more than a Toyota Corolla (600,000 yen) did!

Mitsuko: The first time I saw the Indy 500, I remember thinking “wow, it’s so dark.”

Kenji: That’s because it was projected through multiple sheets of glass.

Kasco’s Windmill, an electro-mechanical ball game.

—What kind of challenges did you face on the manufacturing side?

Kenji: The ball catching games, like Windmill, gave us a lot of difficulties. These were bagatelle-like games in which you tried to catch as many little balls as you could in a minute. In Windmill, for example, it was hard to get the path of the balls right. Multiple balls would get jammed in there, or they’d just get launched straight past the course. Adjusting all that was a real chore.

There was also the coin selector device. The games worked with 10 yen coins, but they couldn’t take 5 yen or other coins. We didn’t have the good, versatile devices then that we have now.

—I remember as a kid, playing this game at a local candy shop. You put in a coin, and a roulette wheel would spin, and coins would come out if you won…

Kenji: We never made any gambling games at Kasco. Actually, we did make one machine, a head-to-head game, where the person who won would get 20 yen. It was kind of like gambling. But after selling 100 units, we ceased production.

—Why did you stop?

Kenji: I imagine it wasn’t the direction President Furukawa wanted to go in, as a company?

Mitsuko: It wasn’t a game that was good for children.

—I see, it sounds like Kasco really wanted to make children’s games then…

Kenji: They did! Wholesome entertainment.

Mitsuko: I think with Windmill, we eventually stopped even including prizes as a feature. Although some shops still had something come out, I believe?

Kenji: I think it ended up being caramel candies. That was after I had quit working at Kasco, though.

Kasco and Namco

Thanks to Mr. Nagata’s introduction, we were also able to interview Yasukazu Takahashi and his wife, Fukiko Takahashi, who both worked in sales at Kasco during its golden age. Fukiko and Yasukazu are still active in the games industry today: Fukiko is the President of Fuuki, a company you may recognize as the creator of Asura Blade (arcade) and Youkaidou (Game Boy Advance).

—I’d like to start with something Kenji noted earlier, that without Kasco’s pioneering business, the game industry would have looked very different. What do you think about that?

Yasukazu: Yes, that’s very true. With games like the Mini Drive, we were really forging new ground in this industry.

Former Kasco employees,
Yasukazu and Fukiko Takahashi.

—Had there not been any games like that before?

Yasukazu: There were not. I can’t ultimately say whether some hobbyist hadn’t put together a one-off machine of their own, but Kasco was certainly the first in Japan to actually form a legitimate business around making electro-mechanical games like these.

After the war, in 1955, there was only Namco and Kasco. I don’t know all the details, but I believe that Masaya Nakamura, the founder of Namco—his father ran a real gun store, and that’s how he got started, making cork guns for festival booth games. Five or ten years later, Namco was installing mechanical rocking horses in the Mitsukoshi department stores, which was their official entry into this business.

Nakamura would usually come visit us at Kasco once or twice a month. He’d talk over various things with President Furukawa, so I think there was some business connection between them.

But definitely, the big breakthrough for Kasco came with the Indy 500 rear projection driving game. It was really the origin of driving games. You can draw a straight line from the Indy 500 all the way to the driving video games we have today.

That was when Kasco became a big name. At the time, Sega had really grown from their overseas business, and the standard thinking was “If you want to export something overseas, it’s best to go through Sega.” Then all of a sudden, Kasco’s Indy 500 becomes this big hit, and Kasco decides to independently sell it in Europe in Japan. Kasco wouldn’t deal with Sega, and Sega had an image to uphold, they had to keep up—so Sega copied Kasco after that. Kasco had the Indy 500, so Sega went and put out… what was it called, I think it was the Grand Prix. Namco also released a similar game, Racer.

A photograph from 1955 showing Nakamura Industry’s (later Namco) first foray into the entertainment business: mechanical rocking horses installed at a Yokohama department store.

According to a feature in Game Machine magazine titled “The History of Video Games”, although Kasco licensed its technology to various overseas businesses, it never obtained many actual patents for its inventions because the patent application process took so many years. As such, it appears Kasco never obtained any intellectual property rights for its games, even hits like the Mini Drive and Indy 500.

Yasukazu: After Kasco had gotten into the export business, I ended up taking a trip overseas myself. Seeing arcade machines there, I noticed a surprising number of similar technologies: weren’t these also used in Kasco games?! Then I realized it. President Furukawa must have seen these and used them as a basis for his own ideas, or heard about them or seen photos. I actually don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that Kasco wasn’t coming up with everything on their own—a lot of these inventions had their roots overseas. Even the Mini Drive…

Kenji: Really, the Mini Drive too?! You saw something similar?

Yasukazu: It was larger, and had many more belts running it, but our overseas connection Mr. Willis may have seen it and told Furukawa. I think it might have been the basis for the Mini Drive.

Kenji: I guess it only makes sense that they’d be more advanced overseas.

Yasukazu: Yeah, it does. But that’s business, you know? Everyone is always copying everyone else!

Kenji: Mr. Willis was from Australia, wasn’t he? He helped Kasco out a lot then. He travelled all over the world, independently, buying and selling games. He has since passed away. People were always talking about him at Kasco, Willis this, and Willis that.

Kasco’s 1959 EM hit, Mini Drive.

—Did he introduce Kasco to new games that were coming out?

Yasukazu: I think so. I wasn’t party to those conversations myself, but I would later be asked my opinion on making a version of some game overseas. Willis was a really amazing person. When I think back on it now, he must have brought so many machines to Kasco’s attention. Did you know he imported that laser game?

Kenji: The one in the lobby? That was the first time I had seen a laser game in Japan.

Yasukazu: The laser system had probably been devised by some doctorate-level engineer overseas, I imagine. Here’s how it worked: the game had a soundtrack, and to emit the laser, what happened was that when the music speakers shook the cabinet at a certain frequency, it caused an aluminum sheet to be stretched out, which the laser would then hit. It was this laser, controlled by the frequency of the speakers, that then caused an image to be produced. It was an amazing piece of technology.

Just as Masaya Nakamura of Namco had surmised, it became clear that to create these new kinds of games, Kasco was going to need employees with advanced electrical engineering degrees.

Komiyama: An Industry Leader

Takashi Komiyama, the husband of President Furukawa’s niece, handled the sales side of Kasco. In 1955, we can find his name listed as one of Kasco’s three board of directors.

Yasukazu: Although President Furukawa ran the company, he also had to spend his time designing and inventing. It was Komiyama who kept an eye on the movements of the game industry.

In the days when we were working at Kasco, the location of the yearly trade shows rotated between the Kansai and Tokyo area. Nowadays it’s more regular: the JAMMA show happens at a big site in Tokyo, and the AOU show is held in Chiba. But it wasn’t like that back then. One year it’d be at Harumi, and the next Osaka, and then somewhere else.

Because the shows were so far away, many people who wanted to participate in them couldn’t. Komiyama saw that and decided to do something about it. Nowadays when people think of the Kansai area and games, they think of Capcom and SNK, but back then it wasn’t game developers so much as businesses involved in manufacturing amusement machines: Senyou, Meishou, and Okamoto industries. Komiyama rallied everyone into a group and led the charge in trying to organize events in Kansai.

Takashi Komiyama (left) and President Furukawa (right)

—I see.

Yasukazu: Komiyama had his own ideas about how the game industry should develop. He felt that rather than having one big company come to dominate everything, if we all banded together, we could accomplish so much more, and he tried to get Kasco and other businesses involved in an equity participation to work together and harness all our different strengths. He wanted to create a single amusement park truly worthy of the name. But President Furukawa and Komiyama didn’t see eye to eye, so he eventually quit Kasco to form his own company. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could complete his dream.

—That’s unfortunate.

Yasukazu: Yes, he was a real leader and advisor to the burgeoning Kansai game industry.

Kasco’s Mysterious Video Game

Around the time that Sega released the first domestically produced video game, Pontron, Kasco debuted a new prototype video game created as a joint production with Victor. The year was 1973, and the home console version of Atari’s Pong had just touched down in Japan the year before. In this extremely early era of video game history, Kasco introduced this full-color video game where you controlled a whale trying to eat small fish. It was called “Playtron.”

Yasukazu: We didn’t have the technical skill to make a video game on our own, so all the video parts were handled by Victor. We did the controls (the steering handle), the cabinet, and other mechanical things. My memory isn’t 100% clear on this, but I remember the Playtron used multiple circuit boards too.

Kenji: I know we had prepared everything to be mass-produced, including the television diplays. We were working with Victor after all.

A concept art drawing for Kasco’s Playtron, which would have been Japan’s first color video game had it been produced.

—Was it an actual color game, or did you just use transparent color film over a B&W image?

Kenji: It was real color. We made two prototypes. It was an ocean game, so the background water was all blue. The whale was black or grey, and the fish swiming around were a reddish color. We chose red for the fish because we wanted them to stand out and grab your attention.

Fukiko: The seaweed was green, and it was also animated. The fish would swim through them.

—You actually completed a working prototype?

Yasukazu: We did. It had a name too, though I can’t remember it now…

—This was the era of the Pontron, right? Amazing. And it was all done with TTL chips?

Yasukazu: Ah, that I don’t remember.

Kenji: We probably would have built a new facility if we had produced them. We stopped in midstride though, because the President of Victor changed, and he didn’t want to do it.

Yasukazu: Yeah, Victor switched Presidents halfway through. And he told the company, “we’re not entering the video game business,” and then he apologized and cut ties with us. If we had been able to complete it and do everything ourselves at Kasco, we would have, but we didn’t have any experience with the video side, and it seemed impossible for us to figure out on our own, so we shelved the entire project.

Promotional flyer for the Playtron. The text suggests it was meant to be a modular system: “Switch games easily by changing the unit!”

But I believe that if Victor and Kasco had teamed up then and gone into video games, there’d be no Sony or Sega today. Without a doubt we would have dominated the industry. Kasco ended up changing their focus as a company after that, and it was because the game industry itself was changing.

—Wow!! It’s crazy to imagine…. Victor and Kasco in the video game consoles business!

Yasukazu: Yeah. The era of the video game had arrived. We were on the frontlines then, so we had a firsthand understanding of what was going on. That shift is also why we quit—we couldn’t compete in this new world. We discussed all this in meetings, too.

The long and short of it was, we just didn’t have the technical expertise. (laughs)


Yasukazu: We had enough money to undertake it, but…

—Well, it sounds like the leadership at Kasco didn’t want to go in that direction.

Yasukazu: I mentioned Masaya Nakamura of Namco a moment ago, but he would visit us at Kasco once or twice a month on average. I remember one time, when I had just got back from Kyushu and was staying in the company dormitory. It was the middle of Obon week. I got a call from the managing director of Kasco, saying “Nakamura is coming to visit, so please get a car for him.” I picked him up, and with my wife and daughter, the three of us did some sightseeing in Kyoto.

When I think back on that time, it always strikes me how different Namco and Kasco were. I’ll never forget what Nakamura said to me, “Yasukazu, you should understand, the times are changing! The industry is going to need people with a high level of technical ability, like university graduates with electrical engineering degrees.” At the time I heard him and thought to myself, what is this guy talking about? (laughs) I knew how relays and switches worked! We were still working with vacuum tube technology, and transistors had only just come out, so I shook my head at all this talk about graduates with electronics backgrounds. Nakamura’s foresight then has stayed with me through all these years.

After the Playtron incident, Kasco continued to neglect the emerging market of video games. With the Invader Boom in 1979, things were shifting more and more to video games, but Kasco continued to make electromechanical games that didn’t use television screens. Kasco was even approached by Nintendo and asked if they would be a subcontractor for their video games, but Kasco never changed course.

Yasukazu: I left Kasco right around the time Space Invaders came out, and it was clear then that the floodgates were now open, and a sea change was coming. It would have been great if electro-mechanical games could have continued. I used to say this at Kasco quite often, but the flow of a large river cannot be changed by a smaller one. Nor would a bit player like us be able to dam it up. And that large river, that change, was in the direction of video games, no question. I remember going to game centers then… they’d have dozens of Invader cabinets—and the larger ones would have up to 100.

The amusement industry had changed. Kasco missed the boat.

At that time Kasco had become quite a big company—we were publicly traded. Guys my age were now in important managerial positions. We owned stock in Kasco! We had a lot invested in it.

—Hmm, I see. But from an outsider, or a younger person like myself who didn’t know Kasco then, it certainly seems like a naive move—to never make a single video game!

Yasukazu: The managers of Kasco all thought they were doing the right thing. “Yeah, video games are all the rage right now, but things will return to the electromechanical, just you wait.”

Kenji: They all really loved EM games, I think.

Yasukazu: Yeah, and they thought that was the right path. It honestly was a difficult decision to make. We debated the matter many times.

Kasco were experts at the EM gun shooter. Ninja Gun represents a refinement of several previous titles like Gunsmoke and Top Shooter.

Memories of Kasco

—Did you play Kasco’s games back then?

Yasukazu: The ones we sold? Of course.

Kenji: Sometimes we’d go to a department store and play one of our games, as a demonstration: “look what cool prizes you can get!” We’d only play a tiny bit. People were surprised at how good we were. (laughs)

—Ah, I see. (laughs)

Fukiko: Naturally, we were the best. (laughs)

Yasukazu: We did make these machines, after all! We were the repair crew as well, and to know how to repair them you needed to be good at the game.

—(laughs) Do you remember any difficult or trying experiences then?

Yasukazu: Oh, there were many. (laughs) Unlike today, the machines back then had some parts that required a lot of maintenance. Nowadays we’d just exchange a switch or relay. But take Kasco’s Mini Drive, for example, it had something called a stepper unit, which counted credits and so forth. Adjusting this thing was extremely difficult. (laughs)

Also, if there were springs in the game, you had to adjust how tight they were. Too tight, and balls would fly out at high speed, damaging the machine.

—I see.

Yasukazu: Repairing these machines took forever. You’d look at the blueprints and spend hours trying to chase these problems down with a multimeter. After awhile, I started to know where to look. I sometimes sent Kenji down to do repairs, and he always repaired them 100%, but I think I was faster than him. (laughs) I’d spent so much time working on these, you start to develop an intuition about where to look.

—(takes out catalogue and some pictures of Kasco machines) Have a look at these.

Yasukazu: Ah. I still own a Mini Drive machine!

Kenji: That Indy 500 was more expensive than the Corolla I drove!

Fukiko: Hah, I know! The stepper unit alone cost 50000 yen (approx USD $500).

—Whoa. It seems like it would be a target for theft?

Kenji: Definitely. Also the guns in our shooting games, and the wheels in the driving games. We used real steering wheels in those—from sports cars no less!

Mini Drives installed
at Tokyo Tower.

—So people would steal them and put them on their car? (laughs)

Kenji: More like they’d hang it in their room as a trophy, probably.

Yasukazu: I can’t remember when it was exactly, but one time Mr. Yano from Tokyo was transporting one of the guns for a game, and he got stopped and searched by the police.

—They must have been shocked, “what are you doing with this?!” (laughs)

Fukiko: It was a replica. He had bought it at a famous model gun shop. As for the Mini Drive, I still have one in a store, in Shikoku. (laughs) My husband put it there out of sentimental attachment. I believe in America, in Santa Monica, most of Kasco’s games can still be found at the Boardwalk. The cork gun and the basket games, too.

—Would they have the KASCO logo on them?

Fukiko: Of course! You actually see them a lot in movies, when they do location filming in Santa Monica and the like. But in Japan, people play these games for the nostalgia, to take them back to that time.

Kenji: The Kasco game that’s really memorable to me, I can’t remember the name, but it’s the race game that used real 8mm film… we actually had Toei film the sequences, and put a camera on top of a car.

Yasukazu: That would be “The Driver.” And the film often broke down, so I had to go repair it on location. Cutting the film and then replacing the broken sections was a pain too.

Kasco’s race game “The Driver”, which used real 8mm film.

—Did you use scissors…?

Yasukazu: No, we had a proper cutting machine. But since it was at customer’s amusment centers, we usually had to do it outside. In the winter it was very cold.

—Were there kids there badgering you, “fix it, fix it!”

Yasukazu: Oh, all the time. I’d get mad, “Hey, it’s this old man’s day off, I’m doing my best here!”

—(laughs) I can’t imagine you really got mad.

Yasukazu: “I’m almost done!”, I’d tell them. (laughs) I quit Kasco around that time. I couldn’t have quit when the company was in trouble, so I quit then, while we were still riding high. And The Driver was definitely one of those highs. It sold really well too. It’s really sad that there’s no trace of Kasco left today, as a company.

Looking Back

—Looking back on your time in the game industry, what are your impressions? The good, the bad…

Yasukazu: …and the ugly?

—Is that what you remember? (laughs)

Yasukazu: Well, most of the bad things about this industry have now improved. But thanks to the classification of game centers under the Entertainment Laws (Fuuzoku Eigyouhou), back then we were seen as peddlers of something unwholesome and illegal.

—Game centers were lumped in with the sex industry.

Fukiko: It’s so odd.

Yasukazu: I still don’t understand it to this day. I opposed it to the very end. It was really hard, you know, being seen that way by everyone. Things have changed so much now. I’m also thankful that now businesses in our industry can be publicly traded, apply for financial loans, and have the ability to grow.

—And what are some of your good memories?

Yasukazu: They are all good, I think. Somewhere in my own heart there’s a dream about the perfect entertainment, something that contributes to a healthy mind and body. Entertainment changes with every generation, and I’m so glad I got to be a part of creating ours.

My generation ended with Kasco. There’s very few of us over 50 left in the industry today—we’ve passed the torch. And in another 10 years, I think things will change again. Now that the dark, negative image of the games industry is gone, I think bigger and brighter things await us.

—Finally, let me ask: if you could sum up Kasco in one sentence…?

Everyone: “a company that sold dreams.”

A very early shot of Kasco, taken
in front of the company office in Kyoto.

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!

Leave a comment

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