The Roots of Compile – 1998 Developer Interview
This compilation of interviews from 1998’s Complete Compile book sheds light on the early days of the prolific, now-defunct software house Compile and the origins of several of their most memorable titles, including the comical RPG series Madou Monogatari and its falling-block puzzle game spin-off, the wildly successful Puyo Puyo. I've also included a nice selection of (mostly STG) concept art from the book.
—How did you create your own game company?
Niitani: When I started Compile, it wasn’t with the intention of making games. Compile was originally started to make business software. It was perilous in the beginning—we barely made enough to feed ourselves.
In 1983, the Famicom, MSX, and Sega SC-3000 machines were released, and Compile started making games for them too. Before I had formed Compile, I had created a number of different games in assembler language.
—Most people think of games when they hear the name Compile, so it’s quite surprising to hear you started out writing business software.
Niitani: It was mostly office management software. We never had a lot of customers though, and the days went by with nary a sale. For Hiroshima, where we were based, I think we were early (maybe too early) pioneers of the coming personal computer boom.
During that time, we actually sold 500 copies of an Apple port of Galaxian that I and another staff member had made. That was about a year out from when we started Compile. That experience was what led us to start making game software. However, for a long time after that we continued to want to make business software, and the groupware “POWER ACTY” was the realization of that.
—How many people did you having making games at Compile, in those early days?
Niitani: In the beginning, I was the only official employee of Compile, and I made most everything on my own. It was just me for the first 4 or 5 years, with some part-time staff to help. I borrowed development software tools from the companies that contracted work out to us.
—When did you start working as an OEM developer for Sega?
—How did you get started making games for Sega?
Niitani: It was after Sega released the SC-3000. I had an acquaintance who introduced me to Sega. Compile was actually one of the companies that participated in Sega’s console launch. 1983 was a huge year for game consoles in Japan—even Bandai released a “Gundam” themed console, the PC RX-78 Gundam model. Of all the game consoles released that year, only the Famicon, MSX, and the SC-3000’s successor, the Sega Mark III, ended up surviving.
—How was the OEM business going then?
Niitani: Our business software didn’t seem to be finding much of an audience. At one point, I showed someone at Sega our port of Hustle Chumy for the MSX. He thought it had a lot of originality, and that’s how we ended up porting it to the SC-3000. Our contract stated that we would get 500 yen [[5 USD]] per copy sold, and it ended up selling 60,000 copies. Honestly, I couldn’t help but feel we got extremely lucky.
—You created a lot of games for the MSX.
Niitani: The MSX and the SC-3000 were very similar machines, with only a slight difference in hardware specs. As long as you attended to the BIOS, you could easily convert the assembler code between those systems. We ported a lot of MSX games to Sega consoles back then. Only Compile was doing that kind of work. And with the SC-3000 and the MSX being so similar, it was two for the price of one. (laughs)
—And this period really cemented your commitment to porting your games for many different systems.
Niitani: We were always looking for low-cost, high-return business. (laughs) That’s why, when the next generation of consoles—the Sega Mark III and the MSX2—were released, we spent the time tweaking our BIOS so we could easily port between them. Sega’s new console appears to be based on Windows CE, so I think we’ll be all set there too. Compile has always developed for both PC and game consoles, and we plan to continue doing so.
—How did you begin doing MSX development, by the way?
Niitani: That work also came through someone I knew, right about the same time we started doing OEM development for Sega. As I was saying, it didn’t take much work to port between the MSX and SC-3000. If we got a request from Sony to port Lode Runner to the MSX, for instance, it would usually be followed by a request from Sega for the same game…1
—Lode Runner was everywhere back then.
Niitani: The Sony (MSX) versions were not complete ports. The SC-3000 port of Championship Lode Runner we did, however, was identical to the Apple version.
—When did you, personally, start to feel that you could make a career out of developing games?
Niitani: I think it was when I was making Hustle Chumy with the part-timers here, and we were in the final phase of the development. I was making last-minute changes and adjustments, and I showed what we had done to one of Sony’s people, and they really liked it. From there on, I started to think, hey, maybe I’m getting the hang of this game design thing.
I made the SC-3000 Borderline entirely by myself too, but after that, everything was made together with the other part-time staff of Compile. I always did the final balancing and fine-tuning on my own. That experience has paid dividends for me down the line, even today.
—Which games, from the SC-3000 era, are you particularly proud of?
Niitani: Hustle Chumy, definitely. I would also say E.I., which is connected to Zanac. When we made E.I., I never imagined that concept would blossom into Zanac. E.I. itself wasn’t especially good, though.
—Another unique thing about Compile, is that once you started making games for a console, you would support it and continue to make games for it to the end.
Niitani: We were really dedicated to the MSX, yeah. We liked its standardization across different systems. Having begun the DiscStation series on the MSX, we ended up supporting that hardware to the very end. And that’s been our stance with game development too. In that sense, the MSX is really the roots of Compile. We also supported the Sega CD to the very end.
—You made a lot of Game Gear games, too.
Niitani: Yeah, and we made stuff for it before GG Aleste, too. But people associate the Compile brand with STG games, so we even made a sequel (GG Aleste 2) for the Game Gear. Of course we also made Puyo Puyo for it.
—As a developer, Compile also is known for being very close to its fans.
Niitani: Right, and that comes, I think, from our work with the “magazine”-format of our DiscStation releases. We answered and received messages from people there, and it was always priced at only 1980 yen [[~20 USD]]. I think there was actually a 980 yen issue too. Those releases gradually deepened our relationship with our fans.
—The DiscStation releases were in a digital “magazine” format, but why did you choose that medium?
Niitani: When we were making Aleste for the Sega Mark III, we thought would try porting it to the MSX, too. At the time, the MSX media used floppy disks, and we thought maybe we could release Aleste on MSX disk as a promotional item. Then, once we ported it, we realized there was a lot of extra memory on the disk, and we tried to find more things to add. We went around to other developers and asked if they’d be interested in contributing to something like this, and thus DiscStation was born. So yeah, I guess it’s correct to say it began as a promotion for Aleste.
We set that initial release at 980 yen, which was a good call. We got a lot of requests for more DiscStation volumes, and afterwards it became a fixture of MSX software.
—How many MSX DiscStation releases did you do?
Niitani: I think there we put out 32 standard volumes.
—Are there any particularly memorable ones, of those?
Niitani: Yeah, the one we released at the end of 1988, the Christmas edition which contained Madou Monogatari. That one sold a ton of copies. I was surprised, since we set the price at 3980 yen [[~40 USD]]. When we asked our customers about that, a lot said it was because Madou Monogatari was so good. Then we figured we should do an official release for it, and that was Madou Monogatari 1-2-3, which also sold very well. The enemies for that game became the pieces you drop in Puyo Puyo.
—Speaking of games ported from the MSX, Zanac was ported to the Famicom.
Niitani: The MSX version of Zanac was published by Pony Canyon, but it was the Famicom version that got really great reviews. It didn’t sell a ton of copies, but it raised Compile’s brand recognition a lot. I heard that people in the arcade world thought very well of it too, which made me happy.
—How did you get started making Famicom games?
Niitani: Pony Canyon, who had seen E.I., asked us to port Zanac. It took us 2 years to make—we’re slow. (laughs) After that we created the billiards game Lunar Ball, which featured unique pool tables. I don’t recall us ever making much money on our Famicom games, unfortunately.
—You made games for other companies besides Pony Canyon, too.
—How many people were working for Compile then?
Niitani: Well, we would only add one or two people each year, so it still wasn’t that many.
—Personally, my impression of Compile was that the PC Engine games made a bigger impact than the Famicom ones.
Niitani: Yeah, there was Devil’s Crush. I believe it was the best-selling pinball video game of all time.
—There was the STG Gunhed (Blazing Lasers), too.
Niitani: Yeah, Aleste led to Gunhed and Musha Aleste. Each one gradually got more and more recognition from players. The MSX was starting to die out during that time, and we shifted the DiscStation to the PC-98.
—For fans of that era, I think the Compile name immediately evokes “STG”.
Niitani: Yeah, and we tried to cultivate that image, it was something we were fully aware of. I was happy that the games got really good reviews, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We lost a bunch of staff from 1991 to 1992. The people who were left were the PuyoPuyo and DiscStation staff. That’s why we worked on those games then, you see. And that was also when we thought about porting Puyo Puyo to the Megadrive.
Up to now, DiscStation, Puyo Puyo, and Madou Monogatari have been the pillars of Compile. Sadly, even though we want to make more STG games, we can’t For better or for worse, the changes we went through then have shaped the company into who we are today.
—This is just my layman’s opinion, but it strikes me how many different genres Compile made games for then… (laughs)
Niitani: Back then, we didn’t have any kind of agenda. We just enjoyed making stuff. (laughs) We were absorbed in it, both myself and the staff. We'd often spend 2 years working on a single title, but that’s because we wanted our games to be solid. It may not have made us rich, but it was satisfying. And as a company, I think we did a good job. To be honest, though, the late 80s was a challenging time for us. That’s why we lost so many staff then. Today, we still have about a dozen of those staff employed at Compile, but the majority quit then.
—What kind of games are you making today then, with the remaining staff?
Niitani: The people who made Zanac and Alien Crush are no longer here. Even for Puyo Puyo, only part of the staff remains.
—Compile and Sega seem to have had a very long-standing relationship.
Niitani: I’ve known a person at Sega named “A-san”, since the days of Safari Hunting. At that time, the SC-3000 software development team at Sega was only him, a general manager, and a handful of development staff. I used to stay at Sega and work there for months at a time, right alongside Sega’s employees. I slept under my desk all the time. It wasn’t very comfortable though. (laughs) I like to brag that, of all the third-party developers, Compile has had the longest, deepest relationship with Sega.
—You have said that Compile Club, which started in 1986 and was the precursor to the DiscStation releases, is one of the roots of Compile. Why made you think to start a fan club like that?
Niitani: If you want your organization to last, you need to create media for that organization, I thought. Many companies back then created fan clubs and fan letter/press reports, but almost all of them quit doing them after awhile. It takes a decent amount of money to keep it up. I think in those days, we had a bit of financial leeway that allowed us to keep going. We’d print 20,000 copies of Compile Club and then distribute them for free at PC shops, for instance.
—By the way, where did the name “Compile” come from?
Niitani: It comes from the programming word compile, which describes the process by which your programming code is converted into machine language that a computer can understand. It also means “to put together” or compile something in an editorial sense, which for us as a company, carries the extra meaning that we will take any job on and add extra value and creativity to it through our work.
—I’d like to hear some more about the early days of Compile, if you have anything else to share.
Niitani: Well, then, as now, we struggled with money. In those days I personally checked all the games we did before sending them to the publishers. I was kind of a producer/director/management guy. And it’s not too different from what I’m doing today either.
—Compile developed many games that were then published under another company. Of those, do you have any favorites?
Niitani: The one I’ll never forget is R-Type for the Sega Mark III. It came out really well, we were proud of it. We made it with just 5 people. Musha Aleste, in contrast, was very different. It kept getting made and remade, worked and re-worked over and over.
And of course, Puyo Puyo was unforgettable for me, I have to mention that one.
—Puyo Puyo was first released for the Famicom Disk System, wasn’t it.
Niitani: I absolutely wanted to release it for the FDS. The Famicom, you see, already had Tetris and Doctor Mario, both great puzzle games, so I felt it fit the image of that console. Plus, I thought that if Nintendo recognized our work, and saw it wasn’t just an imitation of other puzzle games, it would be a special badge of honor.
Super Puyo Puyo, which was published by Banpresto for the SFC, sold very well. We made other puzzle games besides the Puyo Puyo series too, like Gorubi no Pipeline Daisakusen (“Gorby’s Pipeline Master Plan!”).
—Why do you think Puyo Puyo became such a big hit?
Niitani: A writer named O-san from Denpa Shinbun wrote a number of columns on Puyo Puyo, saying how great the versus battles were. When I saw those articles, I became sure that this would be a big hit. Most editorial columns just wrote fluff reviews, or didn’t mention the gameplay. But if someone found it this interesting, I was pretty sure it would be big. I had a strong intuition about it. Reading those articles was the moment of realization, and I decided then that we should develop the series further, and port it to other systems too.
—How many people were involved in making Puyo Puyo?
Niitani: It was made by the same core team who made Madou Monogatari for the MSX. Later, several of the graphic artists would quit Compile. Which is why, as the series has progressed, the character designs have changed a little bit. When the staff changed, it was like the entire game got a facelift. We re-designed some of the characters to be more appealing to a wider audience, and we feel this matches the accessible gameplay better too. I think it’s a game anyone can enjoy. I suspect Puyo Puyo will be a pillar that supports Compile for many years to come.
Madou Monogatari – 1998 Developer Interview
also featured in the Complete Compile book
Kei Tatsuki – Programmer. Started working part-time at Compile in 9/88, and officially joined in 4/89. Mainly worked on the DiscStation series. He worked on the original version of Madou Monogatari published in the DiscStation Christmas Special edition, as well as the PC-98 Madou Monogatari 1-2-3. He also contributed to the PC-98 versions of Puyo Puyo and Nazopuyo.
—I’d like to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories of how Madou Monogatari began.
Tatsuki: Oh, there’s a lot. (laughs) Partly, for me, it came from trying to figure out how to make a game with “fuzzy stats”…
—Please explain what you mean by that.
Tatsuki: I thought it was stupid when games would represent stats/damage/etc with a simple number. (laughs)
Of course, internally everything has a number attached to it, but I think it’s annoying when games would show you that explicitly, like “You received 12 damage” (laughs) Ultimately you still collect gold, so there’s grinding all the same, but we didn’t think about stuff like that in the initial planning stages of Madou Monogatari. And during the development, I told everyone that I didn’t like showing numerical stats. In the past, I had played these old Apple games where everything is displayed with words alone, no numbers. So part of it was wanting to recreate an experience like that.
—You also were part of the Puyo Puyo development, right?
Tatsuki: Yeah. On that note—and I’m probably opening myself up to a new round of embarrassment here, but—did you know there’s a little story behind Jhezo’s famous “I want you!” catchphrase? That line comes from me, actually.
Tatsuki: I believe it was during a development meeting to talk about the graphics… there was this female designer on the team named Eiki, and I was trying to say I wanted her on the team as a designer, but I stupidly blurted out, “I want Eiki!” I tried to explain myself after but it was too late. (laughs) The next day, that line had been added to the arcade version of Puyo Puyo.
—Do you have any other interesting trivia to share?
Tatsuki: You know the Momomo character? They’re treated as male in the official game, but originally it was female. I don’t remember all the details, but I believe in the MSX2 version of Mado Monogatari 1-2-3, the Momomo monster was a female whose brain had been sucked out by the Incubus enemy.
—By the way, speaking of the MSX version, I noticed that a lot of the enemy monsters have human female heads… why is that?
Tatsuki: It’s because we thought we were going to make nuigurumi (plushies / stuffed animals) for Sega’s UFO Catchers. I believe the idea was that girls, and cute stuff, would be better for that. (laughs)
—Tatsuki, what does Madou Monogatari mean to you personally?
Tatsuki: It’s something that will always be with me—my origins, if you will. Naturally it’s a game I have a lot of personal attachment to. At the time, as a programmer and developer I just didn’t quite have the chops, so if I had the chance, I’d love to take another go at a Madou Monogatari game with my current skills… not for Compile necessarily, but for my own personal satisfaction.
Bonus Concept Art Selection
This is just a small selection of the STG concept art featured in All About Compile… the book is worth tracking down if you’re interested in seeing more! Click on each image to enlarge for full glorious detail.
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Compile ported Championship Lode Runner to both the SG-1000 and the MSX.↩