Metal Slader Glory – Developer Interview Collection
In these two lengthy interviews, illustrator/mangaka Yoshimiru Hoshi (stylised as ☆Yoshimiru) discusses the making of Metal Slader Glory, a cult graphic adventure game developed for the Famicom in collaboration with HAL Laboratory and later remade for Super Famicom, with a particular emphasis on the technique and craftsmanship behind the game’s lavish, limit-pushing visuals.
Yoshimiru Hoshi – Designer / Creator / Director
—Metal Slader Glory is set in the year 2062, so please fill us in on what’s going to happen in the next 50 years.
☆Yoshimiru: I’ll do my best.
—Metal Slader Glory was originally released in August of 1991. The advertising campaign emphasized the fact that the game was in development for over 4 years, so does that mean that work on the game was already underway in 1987?
☆Yoshimiru: I was a freelancer working out of the HAL offices when I proposed Glory. As I worked on other games I learned a lot about the Famicom hardware and was able to display character portraits and speech as well as add blinking and mouth animations like those that appeared in the final game. I then gathered together what I’d made and presented it to the company. After that, I finally received the go ahead.
It took HAL some time to put together a team to work on the project, so during those 3-4 months I worked on the script. It was different from working on something like an anime, and what I ended up with was much more like a choose your own adventure game book…
—Was it a script with branching paths?
☆Yoshimiru: Each command was tied to a specific scene, and once you’d read the corresponding text you’d be faced with choices A, B and C which would decide where you went next. Very similar to a game book.
—Did you first create the main story path and then add the alternate scenarios? Or did you include them from the very beginning?
☆Yoshimiru: The plot outline in the design documents filled about 10 pages, but the details of the story were all in my head. I created flowcharts detailing how the characters and story would develop and then used that as a base while writing the script.
—You change the colour of the text and even the sound depending on the character that’s speaking. I can see you paid close attention to small details such as these.
☆Yoshimiru: Well, the Famicom has very limited storage. Drawing each scene separately would have filled it up and the game wouldn’t have fit. But, by having animated character portraits, we were able to re-use them throughout the game. The multiple animations add variety, don’t you think?
☆Yoshimiru: While I was working on the script the main thing I wanted was to have the characters animate. If the characters show emotion you can place them in any kind of scene, and by adding animation I wanted to be able to change the character’s expression in their portrait if, for example, another character in the scene said something strange. By doing this I expected that we could reuse the same graphics throughout the game without the player getting bored of them.
—Are the sounds that play as the text is drawn on screen matched to the a,i,u,e,o vowel sounds?
☆Yoshimiru: Initially, I had five sounds made and tried to match them to the speech, but the results were a little strange. The five sounds remain in the game but in general, I didn’t use them all. I found that adding too much intonation made it sound more like music rather than speech, and after some testing, I arrived at what we have now. When the male and female characters speech makes different sounds it ends up sounding like a conversation, right?
—Even between two female characters, the sound is different, isn’t it?
☆Yoshimiru: I changed the speed of the text to reflect characters that speak very quickly and those that speak more slowly. I checked with the programmer and he told me that it was possible to synchronise the text speed, text-sound and character expression so that’s what we went with.
—Most adventure games at the time would draw all the text with the same da da da da sound. Did you decide this was something you wanted to change right from the initial script writing stage?
☆Yoshimiru: I thought it would be nice if I could include it, yes. In other games of the era they would draw the text with no sound, display all the text at once, or on the PC it was common to draw it with that da da da sound as you said. I think most game developers simple accepted that was the way it was, and fans didn’t mind, but I always thought it was strange (laughs). I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it this way.
—There’s a huge amount of art in the game isn’t there.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, the graphics were what took the most time to complete. (laughs) When creating the background and sprites for a scene, a single bank (the Famicom was capable of holding one 128×128 image for backgrounds) was only enough to fill a quarter of the screen. So, when making the scene where the space shuttle leaves earth, for example, that isn’t enough space. No matter how much of the screen you fill with black space you still have to draw the ship and the earth on the background. So, I drew the right half of the earth and the left half is just made up of repeating tiles like a mosaic. Coming up with solutions like this were the main reason the game took 4 years to make.
—Are there many differences between the game you set out to make and the one that ended up on store shelves?
☆Yoshimiru: When you look at the overall picture, I set out to make this kind of game and tell this kind of story. In that respect, I think I was successful.
☆Yoshimiru: But, I wrote many pages of script for the pivotal parts of the game and had no way of knowing how many bytes they would take up. It was only once I’d completed around 80% of the documentation that we started talking about if everything would fit or not. Then, a little later on I had to start cutting things. In the end, not even half of the script I wrote made it into the game.
—Metal Slader Glory has been released on the Virtual Console with a CERO B rating, what do you think caused that?
☆Yoshimiru: I wasn’t involved in that process so I can’t say for sure.
—I think it was probably either Azusa’s underwear on the terminal station or Elina’s shower scene on the Moon-Face. During development was there any kind of regulation on sexual content?
☆Yoshimiru: During the end of development, I did take it upon myself to change some of the more adult graphics and player options to something harmless and inoffensive.
—Certainly, there’s no offensive language in there. Unless you count inviting girls out to dinner or talking about their bust.
☆Yoshimiru: Originally on the shuttle from earth to the station that command appeared with Azusa…
—Ah yes, the command to ‘touch’ appeared didn’t it?
☆Yoshimiru: Initially it was touch, but I changed it to smile instead.
—(laughs) Huh? But on the Super Famicom, it’s still ‘touch’ isn’t it.
☆Yoshimiru: Well, I thought it was probably okay on the Super Famicom and replaced it.
—In the original release, you added a manga to the manual.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, I asked the PR guy if it was possible and he told me it was. The PR at HAL always treated me wonderfully and was very open to hearing my opinions. It became clear that there wasn’t enough space to fit the opening in the game so I thought if I’m going to draw it as a manga I could package it together with the game. That’s why the game starts rather suddenly.
—You still left the scene where Glory is revealed before the title screen, but the story leading up to that is all in the manga.
☆Yoshimiru: Of course, that means that people who play on the Virtual Console or Nintendo Power wouldn’t get the back story… but, when the SFC version was released I felt that most of the people who were buying it were either people who played the original and wanted to revisit the game or people who couldn’t afford the original because it had gotten too expensive.
—It was the poster boy for expensive games in the late nineties, wasn’t it. I think the Virtual Console has helped, but it’s calmed down in the last 10 years. But rather than being a coveted rarity, I think it’s better to let more people experience the game on platforms like the Virtual Console.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, I’d rather more people got to play the game. On release, it quickly disappeared from stores and while a second production run was requested, HAL wasn’t able to produce them. At that time the sales and development parts of the company were separating, so once the initial run sold out, no more were ever produced. I feel like it was a terrible waste.
—The main character of the story likes the ladies. Is that something all the guys in your world share, or something specific to that character?
☆Yoshimiru: I think, there are all kinds of things the players want to try during their adventure. It was a matter of trying to create a character that said the kinds of things that made that possible.
—I see, Tadashi really is a video game character, isn’t he. So, while they’re playing this game the player can really unleash their inner lothario.
☆Yoshimiru: Please play the game however you wish.
—Do you currently have any plans to further develop the world?
☆Yoshimiru: If I can, I’d like to draw another manga, but we’ve had the Famicom game, then the manga, the Super Famicom game, the drama CD a couple years back, and then the capsule toys last year. We’ve continued to produce goods over the years and it really has become something of a life-work for me. So, if I’m presented with the opportunity I’d love to continue to create and develop the world.
—You don’t have anything in the works at the moment then.
☆Yoshimiru: I think it’s easiest to draw manga but, this title really has become a hobby and while I’m allowed I’m going to continue to produce things for the fans to read. If we can organize it I’ve been thinking about an e-book. Of course there are various ways of providing content to the fans, but that’s one I’m thinking of.
—Do you think you’ll ever make another game?
☆Yoshimiru: I have ideas, yes but, it’s difficult to make them by myself and I’m not sure how I’d go about it. There were some great ideas and systems in the original Glory. I think if we were to remake the game for PS3 or Wii with polygon graphics, or even release it on DS or mobile, it would still hold up. There are more stories to be told in the Metal Slader world, so if I had the chance, I’d definitely do it.
Metal Slader Glory – Developer Interview
originally featured in Faminetsu
—On hearing the name Yoshimiru people will immediately think of Metal Slader Glory, but could you tell us a bit about your career before you joined the games industry. I understand you started as an animator.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, although I quit after only a short time. Following that, an acquaintance helped me to get a part-time job at an editorial company called Gineisha. They edited a hobby magazine called Fan Road so I was working alongside such renowned modellers as Shinada Fuyuki and Geddaman (Itou Hedeaki).
—What exactly was your job while you were there?
☆Yoshimiru: I helped with editing, and learned from the other staff. I did a bit of everything really, from research to cover design and layout. If there was some space on a page then I’d draw a short manga or illustration.
—So your artistic talents came in handy even then.
☆Yoshimiru: Gineisha was in charge of a number of hobby and modelling magazines. These days assembling and painting the models would be the job of professionals but at that time it was down to the editorial team. I was also responsible for drawing the inserts explaining how to put them together.
—Were you able to give those inserts a bit of character?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, often I was drawing pre-existing characters so I was more trying to give them the correct proportions and copy the original artist’s style. If I was drawing a set of instructions then the focus was more on the tools, so I don’t really think my style came through, but I did the best I could.
—Do you remember what year that was?
☆Yoshimiru: I went into animation after graduating and it was about a year and a half after that. It must have been around 1981 or 1982, but I was only at Gineisha for around six months. After that, I moved to a newly established editorial company called Work House.
—Ah yes, Work House. They produced the Keibunsha Daihyakka series and all those Famicom guidebooks.
☆Yoshimiru: When I arrived we were right in the middle of the Gunpla boom. The Famicom boom and those guidebooks came shortly after. For the first six months I was there, I worked on another modelling magazine called Hobby Boy. I’d assemble all the new models and take pictures.
—By models you mean plastic kits.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes plastic kits, Gunpla and things like that. This was the era of things like Ginga Hyoryu Vifam and Heavy Metal L-Gaim. I was involved with all kinds of things at the time like the Ultra Kaiju and ninja volumes of the Keibunsha series and riddle books. I even appeared as a model for some drama articles.
—Then after that came the Famicom boom.
☆Yoshimiru: During that time Hobby Boy mainly focused on models, but as time went on they gradually shifted their focus to include games.
—It was a real craze at the time so it’s not surprising they went in that direction.
☆Yoshimiru: It was then that I started to take notice of video games.
—Huh? So before that, you weren’t a gamer?
☆Yoshimiru: No, I loved anime and models but until then I really wasn’t interested in games. It’s only when I started working on game-related books at Work House that I gave them any attention.
—So you were introduced to them through work! After that did you quickly become obsessed?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, at that time, when we covered games we didn’t just talk about strategies and tricks, we’d also print other additional bonus data.
☆Yoshimiru: For example, we’d print Family BASIC code that readers could reproduce in their homes to play music or make simple programs. On seeing that I realized that video games weren’t just about the Famicom, you could play them on computers too.
—So, the Famicom was your introduction into the wider world of computer games.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, It was the era of the PC-8800, PC-9800, the FM series and MSX. My coworkers showed me that there was a game culture around these systems too, and that’s really where I first came into contact with them.
—Is that what lead to you eventually making games yourself?
☆Yoshimiru: I suppose that’s how it ended up, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about going into that line of work at all. Work House was an interesting company, many of the people there were just working on their own personal projects. Students would rent a space, bring in their computers and create pixel art for their own original games.
—What a charitable way to run a business!
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, it was fairly common for people to work on their projects, and once they finished them, the company would publish it in a book or use it in some other way.
—It’s great that the company gave everyone such free reign to develop their ideas.
☆Yoshimiru: When I was a student I played music, I could draw, and I was also able to animate thanks to my previous work. Then there were people around me who could program.
—So you had everything you needed to make a game.
☆Yoshimiru: Then I learned pixel art by watching others, created some animations and put music to them. I showed everyone and they loved it. That’s when I realized how fun it could be to use a computer to express myself.
—I was certain you grew up using computers. I’m surprised.
☆Yoshimiru: No, Work House was the first time I touched one. As I said before, that was when I started to use computers for things other than work. You remember adventure games of that time would simply draw their graphics in large single images, right?
—That’s right, forget about animation, even displaying a single image was difficult.
☆Yoshimiru: Graphically speaking, they weren’t able to display small detailed pixel art—it was something more akin to the art you might see in a manga. Once I realized this was possible I started drawing my own characters for fun in my free time.
—So during that period, you used both static drawing programs and the pixel animation available on the Famicom. Those are the two pieces that you combined to make Metal Slader Glory, aren’t they?
☆Yoshimiru: That’s right.
—It’s interesting to think that what you were doing at that time would eventually develop into Metal Slader Glory.
☆Yoshimiru: Up until then we had to draw everything by hand, and if you wanted to animate you had to draw onto paper, transfer it to cells, colour it and burn it to film before you’d be able to view it on a CTR. But here you could draw directly onto the computer and view it immediately. That was really fascinating to me.
—I can imagine the appeal of viewing it straight away. I actually worked around development studios at the time, and it was very impressive to watch the artists draw the pixel art, check the animation and immediately correct any mistakes.
☆Yoshimiru: I wasn’t aware at the time, but tools were extremely important. The quality of the tools used to make the game really affects the quality of the game you create.
—What kind of tools were you using then?
☆Yoshimiru: Well it was after I started working on the Famicom, but the tools for that system were all original tools created by HAL.
—HAL was always a company with great technology. I’m sure they came up with some ingenious stuff even back then. So was the HAL job where you really started to work directly on games?
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, I did some pixel art for the MSX version of Gall Force.
—That was while you were still at Work House.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, I was working freelance at that time, drawing manga and illustrations and receiving jobs from Work House too.
—So you weren’t under exclusive contract.
☆Yoshimiru: No, and it was during that time that HAL was looking for someone that could do pixel art. Even though I had very little experience, I wanted to do it, so I volunteered. They prepared a desk for me at their main office, which in those days was located in Kanda near Akihabara.
—So you were working on the MSX version of Gall Force?
☆Yoshimiru: The project was already underway and they really threw me in at the deep end. I was handed some tools and told to ‘Make as many characters as you can that look like the enemies from Xevious’. (laughs). They hadn’t even worked out the look of the world at that point so I just drew as many different kinds of enemies as I could. That was the start of my pixel art career.
—Gall Force is based on something, isn’t it?
☆Yoshimiru: There’s an anime.
—But the game wasn’t connected.
☆Yoshimiru: Not at all (laughs). The imagery in the original was a little adult for a home game so they took the main characters and created their own original story.
—What other games did you work on during your time at HAL?
☆Yoshimiru: After finishing work on the MSX version of Gall Force I went to work on the Famicom release.
—For the Disk System! I played that game myself.
☆Yoshimiru: I wasn’t heavily involved in this project either, I was just responsible for the pixel art on the ‘My Ship’ section of the game where I also took care of all the effects and transformations.
—I had no idea. What came after that?
☆Yoshimiru: It was another HAL developed game called Keisan Game: Sansuu 5+6 Nen (“Arithmetic Game: Years 5+6”). It was an educational game which drilled multiplication and division. For the multiplication section of the game there was a sci-fi girl, and for division, a little girl in a flower garden. I was in charge of the flower girl.
—Huh, they didn’t put you in charge of the sci-fi section? (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: No, but they gave me a lot of freedom, so I was able to give a personal touch to both the art and animation. I added personality to her walking animation, and small details like the flutter of her hair.
—You put a great deal of effort into an educational game.
☆Yoshimiru: They let me do what I wanted so it was a really enjoyable project.
—According to Wikipedia you also worked on a game called Fire Bam. I wasn’t aware of that.
☆Yoshimiru: That was a Disk System game, I just helped out a little with the animation.
—Then after that, you started on Metal Slader Glory.
☆Yoshimiru: That’s right. By that time everyone was comfortable working on the Famicom and had a good idea of what the machine was capable of, so the company started asking the employees for project ideas.
—Of course, HAL originally started by making computer peripherals and working as system engineers.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, but once the Famicom took off they decided they wanted to develop their own games in-house, though at that time they had no production or creative departments.
—They were focused solely on technology.
☆Yoshimiru: Of course, they went on to form those departments later on, but until then students and freelancers like myself could propose projects. If they were good enough to develop, then HAL would assign programmers and other team members and put them into production. I presented Metal Slader Glory to them during this period.
—I’m sure a lot of ideas were put forward, too many to put all of them into production. Why do you think they decided to go ahead with Metal Slader Glory?
☆Yoshimiru: It’s just conjecture on my part, but I think it was the graphics I’d been able to produce. When I was getting ready to present the game… well, I suppose you couldn’t really call it a presentation. It was an attempt at a design doc, a screen mock-up and a couple of example animations. But, while I was waiting to show what I’d made, I was testing it on the monitor and Iwata happened to walk past. He saw the graphics, and the game was given the go-ahead without the presentation. (laughs)
—(laughs) He just walked on by?! What position did Iwata hold at the time?
☆Yoshimiru: He was the head of development.
—Ah, so he had the power to set new projects in motion. What exactly did he say about the game at the time?
☆Yoshimiru: He didn’t tell me directly, but my colleagues told me later that he said the graphics looked more advanced than something a Famicom should be able to produce.
—High praise from Iwata!
☆Yoshimiru: He wanted to see what would happen if my initial animations were made into a full game, I think.
—In this book, you also mentioned that particular episode. But I didn’t believe that he would have commissioned the game without seeing any of the actual gameplay. It was always a mystery to me, but on hearing what you just said, I believe it was the impact of seeing something quite unlike anything he’d ever seen before. I’m sure he thought it would have a similar effect on others if it was made into a full game.
☆Yoshimiru: I’ll go into more detail about this later, but the Famicom hardware is tile-based and there’s a limit to the number of unique tiles the Famicom can display. If you were to add together what you can store for the background and sprites it would only take up about half the screen, so it’s not really enough to display large pieces of artwork. I think seeing those large characters blinking and moving their mouths on screen was what piqued Iwata’s interest.
—I’m sure that’s right. At that time displaying large characters on the screen was really difficult.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, something like that had a lot of impact.
—Characters were difficult of course, but I’ve also been told creating interesting backgrounds was equally challenging. That’s why most games of the era simply repeated the same 16×16 tiles. So that leads us up to the project getting started. That was 1987, wasn’t it? Is this document from that time?
☆Yoshimiru: The real documents were larger. I just printed out the data, but this is the same style of document Nintendo used to put together screen concepts.
—Really, is it okay to publish it here?
☆Yoshimiru: I’m sure it’s fine (laughs). We used this type of layout mock-up to indicate what would be displayed on-screen and which graphics are going to go where. It was standard practice at the time so we also used them on Metal Slader Glory.
—So once the project started, what were you actually doing? You devised the project, and I’m sure you directed as well as creating the art.
☆Yoshimiru: I did everything. In fact, the only things I didn’t help with were the music and programming.
—The design documents and the artwork…
☆Yoshimiru: I designed the systems, wrote the script, did the art, animation, direction and added the sound effects.
—That sounds like a lot of work.
☆Yoshimiru: It was, but I feel like it wasn’t uncommon for a single person to make a game back then. You didn’t have huge development teams like today.
—I understand, but you presented the idea in 1987 and the game didn’t release until 1991, so it took 4 years.
☆Yoshimiru: Once the project was given the go-ahead I spent the first 6 months talking with the programmers about what kind of game I wanted to make and what kind of systems were needed. After that, it took them a further 3 months to create the basic systems for Metal Slader Glory.
—Like laying the foundations for the construction.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, Metal Slader Glory was based on a program called AGL (Adventure Game Language). That’s what formed the base for the rest of the systems and without that, we couldn’t have even entered the script. So, while the programmer was working on that, I spend around 3 months working on the script, created flowcharts and finishing the dialogue.
—So you planned out the entire game.
☆Yoshimiru: At that time there were no word processors so it was all handwritten (laughs).
—That’s how it was back then. Now I’ve heard that you weren’t actually an employee of HAL. For the 4 years of development, how were you making money to live?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, I had to pay my own way. (laughs)
—You say that with a smile on your face but I’m sure it must have been hard. You didn’t even receive a little bit of the development budget before you began?
☆Yoshimiru: My contract was such that I would only make money from the royalties, so I didn’t make any money until the game was released.
☆Yoshimiru: But back then I was still living with my parents, so even if I didn’t have any money I was never in danger of starving.
—(laughs). So, what was it like at HAL during that period? Was it an easy place to work?
☆Yoshimiru: It might be a strange way to explain it, but ‘top-down’ is the phrase that comes to mind. Iwata was ever-present and he always looked out for his employees.
—Ah, I knew it! It’s amazing when you think that this was a project suggested by someone who wasn’t even an employee of the company. Well, I can only imagine the miracles that must have taken place to turn this into an actual product
☆Yoshimiru: I’m sure you’re right. (laughs)
—But, knowing what I do about the type of person he was and the way he worked, I was sure Iwata played some part in the process. Hearing you confirm it, I’m filled with admiration.
☆Yoshimiru: Even though the project was suggested by a non-employee there was never any conflict or attempt to interfere from within the company. I really was allowed to do what I wanted until the game was finished. As a result, it’s 100% my vision.
☆Yoshimiru: Later in development, I decided to censor parts of the script and visuals which I’m sure we’ll talk about later, but I was given 100% free reign over everything that appeared in the game.
—So, next, I’d like to ask about your design philosophy when making the game. Looking at this design document the point which immediately grabs my attention is that you wanted some kind of motion on every single screen. Can you tell us how this came about and why it was so important?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, I wanted to see the pictures I drew coloured and brought to life. That’s something that you can’t achieve in a traditional manga. Secondly, I wanted to fly in the face of the accepted knowledge of the time. Ignore the things which were said to be impossible because of hardware specs and such, and make an honest attempt to achieve them on the Famicom.
—Many developers wouldn’t even try certain things because they were “impossible on the Famicom”.
☆Yoshimiru: Certainly, but I always hated avoiding problems by making excuses. I just wanted to put everything I could into the game in order to tell the best story I could. It varies depending on the game, but in an adventure game you want to show enough of the world to develop the narrative… but some games rely too heavily on tutorial text where they should have designed better systems or pop-up messages saying ‘you can’t go any further’ when exploring the world map.
—Yes, yes. (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: I didn’t want to do that, so I avoided it all together. I wanted to tell the story entirely through the characters and the world. Whatever limitations I encountered, if I could somehow incorporate them into the story, then it wouldn’t affect the player experience. I thought adding animation to every screen in the game would help me do that.
—That’s amazing, I feel like that’s something a veteran designer would have come up with. To have thought of it in your first game. (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: You think so?
—Next, I’d like to know a little bit about the games you’ve played up until now, are there any we haven’t talked about yet? For example, what was the first computer game you ever played?
☆Yoshimiru: Other than Game&Watch?
—You can include that if you want.
☆Yoshimiru: Well I had a couple of Game&Watch, like Donkey Kong.
—So you weren’t completely uninterested in games a child then.
☆Yoshimiru: The first game to really capture my interest was Dai Sennryaku on the PC-8800 or PC-9800. I got really addicted to that series.
—How old were you at that time?
☆Yoshimiru: They had a computer when I started at Work House and the first time I was allowed to use it I realized ‘Oh hey, they have games on here too’.
—That was really the first time? When you were a kid and you’d go to shopping malls and department stores they always had game consoles. You didn’t play on those?
☆Yoshimiru: I played Space Invaders at the coffee shop a few times but I never got any good at it…
—Didn’t it grab you?
☆Yoshimiru: Not really, everyone else was playing so I had a few goes but I was never one to use my money at the arcade or on the cocktail cabinets at the coffee shop.
—Really! That’s quite a surprise. I was sure you were a creator who’d played many games, analyzed the problems and devised ways to solve them in your own game.
☆Yoshimiru: Ah, well that came from my time playing on the PC-8800, 9800, MSX and the FM series. I had a go on an MSX at HAL just before starting work on Gall Force. I think those early impressions are what formed the basis for my design philosophy.
—Ah, I see. But when you decided to base the entire games development ethos around these things, did the people at HAL understand?
☆Yoshimiru: Hmm… well, other than me, everyone was a programmer. They’d obviously played many games leading up to that point and knew a lot about them. I think that was why the first graphics they saw really wowed them so much.
—I’m sure. They were good enough to impress even Iwata, after all.
☆Yoshimiru: And they were always very friendly and willing to listen, even to an outsider like me. If I said ‘I want to do this, would it be possible?’ Then they’d always reply ‘Yes’, and get to work on programming the systems. So it’s as I said before, they never once asked me to change anything related to either the gameplay or graphics.
—In my experience, if a programmer gets a difficult task they’ll always say they can’t do it (laughs) But I’ve heard before that HAL wasn’t that kind of place. So if I were to ask you the question ‘Did you encounter any difficulties while developing the game?’ you’d answer no?
☆Yoshimiru: Not exactly, we did struggle with the Famicom itself. Metal Slader glory was a game that placed a lot of emphasis on big bold graphics and the Famicom hardware wasn’t made with that in mind.
—Yes, it’s not a high-spec machine.
☆Yoshimiru: Most people would probably think ‘It has a very limited colour palette, it must have been difficult’, or, ‘It must have been difficult creating art in that low resolution’.
—I’m not sure the average person would be that knowledgeable to be honest (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: The biggest difficulty was the 16×16 palette limit.
—“Palette limit”? You’ve lost me there.
☆Yoshimiru: This was the most difficult part (shows original documents). This is a mock-up, but look at this. The small tile is 8×8. The larger block is 16×16. For the background, each 16×16 block can be assigned a palette of three colours. You can assign a different colour palette to the adjacent block, but you’ll be able to see where they join.
—Umm, umm (doing his best to follow)
☆Yoshimiru: Using an entirely different colour palette will make the boundaries obvious, so to hide that you can have the two palettes share a colour. In the end, I really had to think about it like a puzzle.
—Like a game within a game almost.
☆Yoshimiru: On the scene at the start of the game, with Elina on the seashore, the sky and the ocean just happened to intersect at the edge of the 16×16 block—so even though you can see the line it’s not a problem. But for more complex art or character shadows, you can’t let those lines show. Dealing with that limitation while still trying to make attractive art was the hardest thing to do.
—Hmm, now how am I going to communicate that in terms our readers will understand (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: In action games like Super Mario or shooting games, the scrolling background is always drawn 16×16. This is because this particular hardware limitation exists.
—Yes, that’s why it was difficult to display a single large picture on the Famicom. I was working in the field at the time but I’ve forgotten everything about the hardware.
☆Yoshimiru: And to compound the problem of the colour palettes, there is a thing called banks. This was where you store all the information that appears on a single screen. Here I have a printout of one of those original bank screens.
☆Yoshimiru: When storing data in the bank you have to break it down into even smaller 8×8 tiles. Even if you start by drawing a 128×128 larger picture, in the end, you have to break it down into 8×8 chunks to fit it into the bank, that was also a difficult hurdle to overcome.
—I’ve just remembered. I did that job too!
☆Yoshimiru: There’s a limit to the number of 8×8 tiles you can store within a bank so the more parts you can reuse multiple times the easier your job will be. For large areas of the same colour, you can simply reuse the same 8×8 tile over and over again, but that doesn’t work for complex art, so you have to come up with more ingenious ways to solve the problem.
—So this was only really possible because you drew the art, converted it to pixel art and arranged the tiles yourself.
☆Yoshimiru: I think so.
—I’m sure it would have been frustrating to try and direct artists who weren’t so familiar with the Famicom hardware (laughs)
☆Yoshimiru: Right around that time, HAL created their own graphics department and I looked at some of their artwork… As I said before, working within palette restrictions is very difficult and in the end, I had to correct everything they made.
—Wow. During development, HAL never asked ‘Would you like to come and work for us?’
☆Yoshimiru: No, I don’t remember anything like that. (laughs). At that time development on Metal Slader was fully underway, so I’m sure they didn’t want to do anything which might distract me.
—Metal Slader Glory began development in 1987 and was released in 1991. But the super Famicom came onto the market the year before that in 1990. Were you worried at all?
☆Yoshimiru: No, we’d already spent a lot of time on the project so there was really nothing we could do about it.
—I suppose there was no turning back by that point.
☆Yoshimiru: There was talk of converting the game into a Super Famicom game, though.
—Ah, I thought there might have been.
☆Yoshimiru: When the architecture of the Super Famicom was revealed, while we couldn’t directly emulate the Famicom, it seemed like it would be possible to transfer the work we’d done, so they did consider making it into a Super Famicom project.
—It’s a game where graphics are at the forefront, so it would make sense to move it to more powerful hardware.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, but in the end, it wasn’t up to me. I’m not exactly sure but it seemed like there was some problem with the ROM or the pricing that meant that in the end, it wasn’t possible.
—Oh, that’s a shame.
☆Yoshimiru: As development progressed and we started to realize just how large the game would be, someone suggested putting it on multiple disks and releasing it on the Disk System. It wasn’t just a choice between the Famicom and the Super Famicom: there were a number of options with regards to how we wanted to release the game.
—The final game made use of the MMC5 chip and was also released in a larger cartridge than normal. Was the size to incorporate that chip?
☆Yoshimiru: That was probably part of it. Afterwards, I heard that the game would have been achievable using the MMC3 chip, but the advantage of using the MMC5 chip was that it was much easier to do parallax scrolling, and that was something we wanted to include in the game.
—Was there anything you particularly concentrated on when creating the pixel art?
☆Yoshimiru: I did try to use anti-aliasing. Of course what you could achieve with the Famicom’s limited colour palette is limited, but I tried to use it wherever I could.
—Anti-aliasing is a technique designed to smooth out jagged edges in pixel art right?
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, of course, it wasn’t genuine anti-aliasing but if a dark and light colour were next to each other I tried to use a medium shade to separate them.
—Is there a specific scene that really sticks in your memory?
☆Yoshimiru: Well I was involved in everything so there’s not really any one scene that stands out, but I suppose the character portraits. I’d always use a slightly lighter shade next to large dark areas like major lines and shadows.
—You can really notice that on the character close-ups.
☆Yoshimiru: If there was a black and grey area, for example, I’d pick a shade of grey between the two to put in the centre, that’s basically what it boiled down to.
—Was that technique self-taught or something you learned from someone else?
☆Yoshimiru: It was self-taught. I learned it as I went along.
—Anti-aliasing isn’t something you’d think of when drawing on paper, is it? Is that something you noticed because your first gaming experience was on a computer monitor rather than a flickery TV?
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, for Metal Slader Glory I was conscious of the flicker and bore that in mind when creating the artwork. It was my goal to create something that wouldn’t just look good on our development monitors but also on a regular TV set too.
—Yeah, people would play their Famicom on their old worn-out family TV sets.
☆Yoshimiru: There was nothing we could do about the colours changing between the development monitors and a normal TV, but pixel art made for a clear RGB monitor and art made to look good on a flickery TV set is completely different. So before development when we were deciding which look to go for I chose to prioritize home TV sets without hesitation and started drawing with that in mind.
—I really feel like Metal Slader Glory is something of a miracle. If you’d have been a seasoned gamer then it would be easy to just replicate their design systems and methods of conveying information, but from what you’ve told me today you really hadn’t played many games before.
☆Yoshimiru: Yes, it was a very natural development process.
—I can’t believe Metal Slader Glory was your first game. It looks like the work of a veteran designer who’d played and learned from hundreds of games.
☆Yoshimiru: Ah (laughs)
—I’m sure that when this is published it’ll be the game creators and journalists, rather than the readers who are the most shocked.
☆Yoshimiru: Well that’s how it was. Before drawing the graphics, before even laying down the basic outline I’d always put it down on paper like this.
Then I’d take this drawing and although they aren’t as high resolution as the scanners of today, we had something called a Digitiser which you would feed it into. It was a pretty terrible recreation but it would be displayed in the drawing tool so I could use it as a base to draw the pixel art.
—That was the best the technology could do at the time.
☆Yoshimiru: I really had to be careful with large areas of black such as lines of shadow and hair. The pixels on the Famicom were much larger than the computer so thick black lines would be too overpowering.
—The large pixels would make the lines appear thicker, wouldn’t they.
☆Yoshimiru: I had to keep adjusting the black lines without losing the impact of the picture, or place lighter complimentary colours around the black areas. Alternatively, I could just reduce the pixels and the form of the original line. It was after experimenting in this that I arrived upon the method known as anti-aliasing. I think that’s where I really started to learn the skills of pixel art.
—I think it shows you had natural talent even at that early stage. Getting away from games for a moment, please tell me a little bit about your artwork. As a manga artist, what’s your favourite among the manga you’ve created so far?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, there are parts of all my work that I’m fond of, but the thing I’m proudest of, or where I was able to display my skills the best, was on Nekomokoro written under my pen name Otokasa Aki.
—This isn’t specific to manga but do you prefer drawing characters or backgrounds?
☆Yoshimiru: If I really think about it, I enjoy drawing drama and dynamism more than anything, so with characters not only their facial expressions but also the movement of their hands and body. So in a scene with a main and secondary character, the main character says something and this causes some reaction in the second character, that’s the part I really want to draw.
—Using the characters reactions to flesh-out the world.
☆Yoshimiru: Of course it depends on what I’m working on, but capturing those kinds of character interactions is what I really love to draw. It doesn’t just apply to people, you could also say the same about cars or spaceships. If a car is speeding along you need to convey that’s it’s going really fast or that it’s about to take a corner. For a spaceship, you need to show that it’s a formidable fighting machine. That’s what I’m always trying to communicate when I draw.
—So you first express this in manga, then you can further enhance the effect by adding animation. It’s all linked together.
☆Yoshimiru: That’s right, movement really is very important.
—Metal Slader had a lot of scenes where characters would turn around when you talked to them and other little details like that.
☆Yoshimiru: It’s ideal if you can introduce these types of reactions even in minor parts of the game outside the main story. When watching movies or anime my favourites are always the ones that have little touches like that.
—Speaking of reactions, there’s a scene on the space station when Azusa jumps in the air, and her skirt lifts up showing her underwear. Did anyone get angry with you about that?
☆Yoshimiru: Well, at one point there were far more risqué scenes than that in the game.
☆Yoshimiru: Initially I wanted to just put everything I could into it, but later on, I decided to go back and tone it down a little. It wasn’t just the visuals but also the text. I changed commands like ‘Touch’ to things that were less likely to cause offence. There was a point during that process where I decided ‘Okay, I think everything here is acceptable’ and well, the underwear stayed in. (laughs)
—It’s not anything sexual is it, rather it’s showing Azusa’s innocence.
☆Yoshimiru: She’s not giving you an eyeful, it’s just a split second.
—That phrasing. (laughs) Well, we’re almost done here, could you tell us a little about your work style? Things you can’t do without, and the type of environment you like to work in.
☆Yoshimiru: Well I have a standard desktop PC with an LCD monitor as my main workstation, then I have a 13 inch Wacom which is what I take with me when I’m not working from home.
—Do you use any specialist drawing tools and are there any you’re especially attached to?
☆Yoshimiru: When I’m drawing I never use anything but Copic.
—So you still do traditional drawing too?
☆Yoshimiru: There are still occasions that call for it, so yes I still draw.
—Which do you prefer, drawing on paper or digitally?
☆Yoshimiru: There’s still nothing that can compare to drawing on paper. If you were to ask me what I like about it, well it’s the feeling of the pen across the paper, the smooth strokes of the pencil and the scratchy feel of the pen. Tablets are certainly convenient but they can’t recreate that feeling, so for me they’ll always be inferior.
—Well, I think we’ve just about covered everything. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
☆Yoshimiru: I’m drawing a manga based on Metal Slader Glory. I also have plans to create a new game, although that’s nothing more than an idea at the moment.
—That’s great, let’s use this chance to get the fans more excited. What type of game are you planning to make?
☆Yoshimiru: Well basically, I want to make a game that concentrates on the characters and their reactions. An adventure game set in the world of Metal Slader Glory. If I could make a VR game then I’d want to make something that can also take the player reactions into account. I’m not sure I’m getting it across all that well. (laughs) This would only be possible in VR but if we could create a system that could recognize your facial expressions and then have the characters react to that… that’s the basic image of what I want to make.
—This is certainly linked with what you told me earlier about your love of capturing drama and movement. Than you very much for your time.
Translated by Peter Barnard
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