Shigeki Toyama and Namco Arcade Machines
This interview with Namco designer Shigeki Toyama first appeared in vol. 0 of STG Gameside (2011). It begins with an account of Toyama’s early history at Namco designing robotics, before turning to his work on some of Namco’s impressive taikan arcade games from the 90s, including Prop Cycle, Point Blank, and Galaxian³ (which is what the folks in the header image here are playing).
—How did you get started at Namco?
Toyama: I studied interior design in college, and I originally had no interest in games. I was working at a design firm then, but I began to feel like the work of a drafter wasn’t suited to me. At that time, a colleague of mine told me “I know the perfect job for you,” and he took me to Namco and showed me around. Namco had a robot design group back then, and I got hired as a designer in that division.
—Was your first work making the Mappy robots, then?
Toyama: Yeah. I was in that division for about a year and a half, but we made all sorts of things. Normally when you join a new company they make you undergo a period of training, but I went straight into making robots. I still had no idea how video games were made then. It was very fun though. In our division I was the only designer, so they let me do whatever I wanted. (laughs)
—It strikes me as somewhat weird and mysterious now, the fact that Namco was making robots then!
Toyama: It was partly done for PR, but it never made much money so it eventually disappeared. I made a lot of entertainment robots there, though, so it taught me a lot about what makes children happy, and what they find fun.
—Right, and I remember that the robot Namco exhibited at the international Expo 85, the “Cosmo Hoshimaru“, was very popular with children.
Toyama: Namco had a special dedicated “Robot Project” team then… that was unusual for any company. (laughs)
—You worked with mecha designer Kunio Okawara too, right?
Toyama: We created a robot together called “Sandayuu”. He had drawn up some designs on his own, but they didn’t move at all. (laughs) He asked me to fix them, and I redid everything, checking with him along the way. It took about a month and a half.
—It seems that Namco’s efforts in robotics really spurred on a lot of independent robot creators.
Toyama: The robotic maze contest “Micromouse” was just beginning then too, but no one had yet created a robot that could get through the maze quickly. We said to ourselves, “Let’s show them how it’s done!” We made a robot that could get through the maze in one minute (when everyone else still needed several minutes). And it had an actual body, and did a little act too.
—That’s an almost childlike level of enthusiasm. (laughs)
Toyama: After that division was disbanded, I was transferred to the corporate identity, a design group responsible for making sure the Namco brand was consistent across different products. We revised and cleaned up the character designs that other developers would hand down to us. We didn’t create any new plans or designs though, just revision of other people’s stuff. In my case, though, I often spoke up with my own ideas… “it would be more fun if you did it this way” or “why don’t you make it move like this?” Sometimes I’d criticize the way they were animating things too. (laughs) Then they’d respond angrily, “You aren’t part of the development, so please shut up.”
—Is that how you ended up getting involved with game design, by sharing your opinions with the developers?
Toyama: Yeah. The early designs for Xevious were actually given to me for revision, too. They were sketches of the Solvalou, which at that point still looked like a round rocket. (laughs) I loved the style of Ron Cobb, who drew the Nostromo ship designs for the movie Alien, so I revised it along those lines. It gave the design a whole different feel.
—Ah, that Solvalou appeared on the cover of the first issue of NG as well. I remember being surprised then to see that Namco had taken this little pixel sprite and turned it into a real sci-fi ship design.
Toyama: The 16×16 sprite size was a limitation of the PCB hardware, though. It wasn’t what people imagined in their heads when they played the game.
Seeing a realistic picture of the Solvalou helps deepen the player’s sense of the overarching game world. I didn’t do the pixel art, though, so it came out more cartoonish in the game.
However, with a sprite the size of Andor Genesis, it was possible for the concept art to match the in-game art more closely. Andor Genesis also originally had a more round design when they handed it to me. The Xevious hardware was not very good at displaying round objects, though. I worked really hard to try and use diagonal lines and make it look nice and rounded, but it just didn’t look realistic at all. Andor Genesis’ codename “Gofuru” came from the fact that it looked like the Gofuru cookies, but I still wonder why the designers used so many round, circular designs.
Anyway, having revised their round design for the Andor Genesis, I also prepared an octagonal design, and let them pick the one they liked best. I really like octagons, so I put more effort into that one to make it look cool. (laughs)
—Did you do design clean-up work for any other games after that?
Toyama: Let me think… well, since I knew how to draft blueprints from my previous job, I also designed some arcade cabinets.
—Right, for Final Lap and Thunder Cepter.
Toyama: And somewhere around Steel Gunner, I began to work with the planners on game design. That was also the last cabinet I designed. The gun for that game was originally more sci-fi in design and shape, but they wanted to use it for Golly Ghost, so they told me to change it. Even though we already had the fiberglass prototypes completed, they told me I had two days to get them new designs.
—It’s amazing you were able to get everything done so quickly within that timeframe. It must be because of all that time and training you had in robotics. (laughs)
Toyama: The work was done quickly. Then we’d spend the rest of the time pretending to work, but really just goofing off… whoops, I probably shouldn’t say that. This is being recorded. (laughs)
—The cabinet for Thunder Cepter was also really cool.
Toyama: I drew the sprites for that game too. If I remember right, by that point I was using a consumer-grade computer equipped with a program for drawing pixel art. The program was written in BASIC, and I soon realized I could modify and tinker with it for my own purposes. When I made the sprites for Thunder Cepter, I modified the program to include a randomization routine in order to test different color pallette combinations. I’d press a button and see a whole different pallette for a sprite… most of them were pretty bad, but occasionally it would give me a cool one. (laughs)
—Do you have any other particularly memorable experiences designing big cabinets like that?
Toyama: Well, there’s Galaxian3, of course.
—Yeah, the Galaxian3 displayed in Osaka at the International Flower Exhibition in 1990 was gigantic!
Toyama: Our supervisor told us to pour all our energy into that project, even if it meant other things had to be put on hold. That’s why we only released half the number of games that year. Galaxian3 wasn’t very profitable, but it was a huge accomplishment. The use of hydraulics to move the machine like that was a new technology too, I think.
—It sounds more like construction than game development. (laughs)
Toyama: When they brought the project to me, they had already decided on how long a single play would be, and that the experience would be divided into two sections: a “how to play” briefing and then the actual game itself. In the meeting they proclaimed “we’re going to make the greatest video game in the world.” Designing it was very much like designing a building in terms of scale and scope, trying to figure out how many projectors we’d need for X number of people, etc. Due to curvature of the fiberglass plastic molds, 28 players was the limit, and if we made something that big, no one in the world would be able to imitate it!
—Would anyone else have even thought to try? (laughs)
Toyama: I drafted the overall designs, arranged the seating, drew the art. Even though it was fake, I wanted it to feel real. (laughs) When everyone started saying “Whoa! Amazing!”, I knew my efforts had paid off. The deadlines were very tight though, and decided in advance, so it made for difficult work.
—Most “3D” games at that time were still using technology on the level of Winning Run. Seeing the high-quality 3D of Galaxian3 then was amazing.
Toyama: You still couldn’t do textures then, and there were lots of other limitations that made it hard. The wiring all had to be short too, or the machine couldn’t move, and we weren’t sure how to hook up more than 10 stations. The PCB hardware would all be jostled around during the game, too, and we worried about that.
—That exhibition was only open for about 6 months. Did you have a lot of hardware problems during it?
Toyama: No, nothing too terrible during the exhibition. The development, though, was full of problems. The hydraulics were handled by a separate hydraulics company, but perhaps because their programmer was a new hire, their programming had a lot of bugs. The emergency stop button was controlled by the software programming, and when it had bugs the machine wouldn’t stop!
—After the exhibition, Galaxian3 was moved and installed in another location.
Toyama: Yeah, at Namco Wonder Egg in Tokyo. It was a very popular attraction, all the way up until the park’s closing.
—You seem to have worked on a lot of projects that were, for their time, unprecedented. Prop Cycle was another one where, when I first saw it, I was amazed that someone had made a game like this!
Toyama: To my thinking, if someone takes the trouble to come out to the game center, the games there should be highly interactive, taikan-style games (even though those are difficult to port to console). A little before the Prop Cycle development began, someone at Namco was working on a game where you rode in a human-powered plane and bombed enemies. I worked on the mecha design only. It wasn’t real 3D either, but a pseudo-3D using scaled sprites. As a game it wasn’t very interesting, but the floating sense you got from flying was good.
One day, that famous anime with the witch girl flying on her broom was on TV, and my supervisor called me up, “Hey, are you seeing this? That’s what we need!”
—It sounds like your supervisor was more excited than you were. (laughs)
Toyama: I’m the type of person who always wants to do something new, something that's never been done before. So with Prop Cycle, I wanted to make a game that wasn’t about “defeating enemies.” But I got a lot of resistance at Namco to that idea. “A game where you just fly around will be boring.”
—Hah, it actually wasn’t boring at all. (laughs)
Toyama: I knew that, unlike a fighter plane, if we based the flying around the concept of sensing and feeling the wind, then it would feel like you were really flying. From that conversation we decided that just pedaling to fly didn’t really fit. Then I said, “If we want to know how it feels, we need to fly ourselves.” So about 20 of us went to out for a day of hang-gliding. (laughs) I put a camera on the glider’s wings, too, and recorded some good data from that. I wanted it to feel precarious when there was a strong headwind, too, and I asked the sound guy to come up with something that would evoke that.
—Yeah, that way you get to experience the elation from flying, but also the terror.
Toyama: The programmer told me he didn’t understand how it felt to “ride the air”, so I attached a weight to the end of an umbrella and gave him a little live demonstration. It took 3-4 months to get the flying to feel right.
For my part, I intended to take on the role of “movie director” for the development. (laughs) So I thought up the story, the setting, and everything myself. I drew the art for the villages too, and designed it so that only if you made it to the final stage would you understand the story.
—Getting that far was no mean feat! (laughs)
Toyama: Yeah, I regret doing that now. The developers became too good at the game during the development, you see, and were good enough that they could beat it while holding a child in one arm. It had a warm, comfy world, so even little girls played Prop Cycle a lot, but now I do think I made it too difficult. I had wanted to port it to console, too, but management said no.
I had also originally planned to add a “Sightseeing” mode. You’d insert your 100 yen coin, and you could fly wherever you wanted within the allotted time. We ran out of time during the development though.
—It can be hard to convey the strengths of something that’s brand new.
Toyama: When you create something weird, it’s hard to find a way to make it approachable for new players. I think one game we did a good job on with that, maybe, was Gun Bullet (“Point Blank” in the West). Realistic lightgun games were very popular in the West then, and I was told to make something similar. But I hate copying other people. When I asked myself, “what is it that makes lightgun games fun?”, I found it was the fun feeling of destruction, and of feeling a huge discharge of energy from your gun. I figured I’d get that part right, then make the rest however I wanted. To that end, I had the mecha team get the accuracy of the guns down to within 1 pixel, and had the sound team create a speaker system that would really convey the impact.
There were arguments about including recoil on the guns, though. If this was supposed to be a comical game, they asked, why were we trying to create realistic guns? I explained that the guns being realistic would make it even funnier.
—Hence the huge blast and recoil from a single shot.
Toyama: There were people at Namco who were really angry about us making Point Blank. “Why the hell did you make something like this?!” But when they had their employees play it, they reported that it was actually really fun. (laughs) It got very good reviews overseas, too, and I was so happy when the President of Namco, grinning, said to me “The President of Namco America came to and expressed his gratitude to you for making this game.”
—For my final question, what do you think the appeal of Namco’s arcade games is?
Toyama: I think they convey a very free sense of creative expression, which is always combined with a certain playful spirit. When you play them, I think you can tell that the designers had fun making them.
—Thank you very much for your time today!
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