Space Harrier – Developer Interview Collection
In this collection of decade-spanning interviews, former and current Sega AM2 members discuss the making of Sega’s classic 3D shooting arcade game, Space Harrier. As with so many classic games of the era, many of Space Harrier’s most distinct and memorable traits were not merely conceived through ingenuity or vision but as pragmatic solutions to immediate problems, be they related to hardware, software, manpower or just keeping the higher-ups at bay.
Yu Suzuki – Designer
—From the new hardware, to the design of the cabinet itself, when Space Harrier was first released it felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down to the gaming world. With that said, while you were developing it, did you feel any anxiety about the game? Did the development ever hit any walls? Please share any memorable experiences you have.
Suzuki: It was nothing but walls, to be honest.
—Is that so? (laughs)
Suzuki: Originally, the “Harrier” in the title was going to be a French VTOL-capable fighter jet, and the planning docs indicated a game where that jet would fly around blowing up land and air targets. That’s what was handed to me when we first started. Actually, thinking back on it now, I feel like that planning doc was over 100 pages…
—Wow! It was that big?
Suzuki: I think the person who created it was very passionate about the idea, but the problem was, the sprite functions (zooming, scaling etc) and the graphics memory were very limited back then. He wanted to do complex stuff with smoke, fire, and explosions, but the current level of hardware technology, while not awful, wasn’t capable of all he wanted. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see a way to realize his plans.
If the player is going to be a fighter jet, then you would want full animation for barrel rolls and the like, right? My personal preference as a game designer is to use nice, big, properly drawn sprites, not small dinky ones. Unfortunately, animating a large jet sprite like that required (at the very least) 64 different sprites. If the sprites were small, we could get by with just 64, but I wanted it to have a proper visual impact on the screen, which meant a larger sprite, and that quickly led to V-RAM problems and memory overflows.
I should reiterate: I’m not saying the planning doc was bad, it just wasn’t possible in that era.
However, I too had joined Sega in those early days, and this was a fellow arcade lover who had put a lot of heart into this document, so I wanted to do whatever I could to make it happen. Yet I was also an engineer, and I knew that no matter what I did, it was simply impossible. So I came around in my thinking and decided I would revise the entire planning document. And the solution I found, which would allow for a nice big sprite but also minimize the number of frames required to animate it, was a human protagonist.
—Ah, I see.
Suzuki: It would only take 5-6 sprite frames to animate a flying human. Then it was pointed out to me that, if the player is a flying human, then a normal/realistic world wouldn’t work. It would have to be fantastic.
Suzuki: There was an artist named Roger Dean, who painted the Yes album covers. He was also very admired by James Cameron, who created the Avatar movie. Our character designer wanted to pay homage to Roger Dean, and show his respect to him, and so he created that fantasy world of Space Harrier. Likewise, I also greatly respected and loved Roger Dean, and felt a visual world like that could work perfectly with our new “flying human” player character.
There was another benefit to the fantastic setting too: if we had used a realistic setting with realistic objects, then we would have had to create extra sprites to capture the changing perspective as the player approached those objects (picture any typical rectangular object, for instance). But with a fantasy world, we could use imagery like the mushroom columns—objects that wouldn’t need a lot of complicated frames to animate, because they look the same from all visual perspectives. By capping those columns with mushrooms, we were able to minimize the visual perspective and hence the number of sprites needed.
The checkerboard pattern for the floor helped impart a sense of speed. And it didn’t eat up the sole frame buffer, so it was possible to use a separate layer for the background. We tried a lot of different ideas there, but the pastel color palette allowed for a sky with many pretty color gradations—a skyline perfectly suited for a fantasy game.
One final thing I kept from the original planning document—I felt I needed to leave a nod to his original vision—was the “Harrier” in the title. I put the word “Space” in front, to make it more fantastic.
In any event, 3D shooting games were something of a taboo then. Up until Space Harrier, they had all been failures.
Suzuki: Not a single one had been a success.
—There had been a lot of them made, though.
Suzuki: Yeah. There were many. But they all crashed and burned. That’s why, when I told Sega I wanted to make a 3D shooting game, there was a lot of resistance. The reason why they were all failures, is that in a 3D game, distant objects are very small, and small objects are hard to hit.
—Right, that explains a lot.
Suzuki: The biggest feature of 3D is that things in the distance look small, and things closer to you look large. We solved that problem, which is why I think Space Harrier was the first hit 3D shooting game. The way we solved it was the homing shot.
Traditional collision detection (on a pixel level) was also very difficult for the weaker CPUs of that era. Those calculations imposed a heavy burden on the CPU, so I set about trying to write a new algorithm that would calculate the hit detection as fast as possible, but I ultimately ended up coming to a different conclusion: to not calculate it at all.
Suzuki: So yeah, in Space Harrier, there’s no traditional collision detection. The game determines your position, and the enemy/object’s position, and from there it approximates the distance between the two. From there, it knows the number of frames before a “collision” occurs.
—Ah. I remember that the first time I played Space Harrier, I didn’t know you could destroy trees and other background scenery objects. It was a surprise when I first realized it, and it was one of the things that felt really good about Space Harrier.
Suzuki: One thing you might not know, is that the “ping ping” sound of your bullets reflecting off objects like columns and such—that actually came from a bug. We liked it so we left it in!
Suzuki: Yeah, we accidentally forgot to make those objects solid, so your bullet would strike it, and not stop, and bounce around inside it like a pinball, which produced that sound. We thought it sounded cool.
The color of the sky was also something that came from a bug, from wiping the color RAM on the PCB. At the time, we had worked up a pretty sky background with nice color gradations… and, well, this is a little bit of a digression, but President Nakayama used to visit our office from time to time.
The thing with Nakayama was, if he saw that the graphics were complete in your game, he would tell you it was done and it was time to release it. Nevertheless, we couldn’t just hide the game from him and show him nothing when he came by. So I rigged up a little switch underneath my desk…
Suzuki: When I pressed that switch it would wipe the color RAM. You could wipe the color RAM, and it wouldn’t affect the rest of the game—everything would keep running, just the colors would get all glitched. To a layperson, it would look like the game wasn’t complete yet. Well, one time we did this, and randomly, the colors of the sky looked extremely striking. Then I used our development tool ICE to stop the CPU and extract the color RAM data, and those became the colors we used for Space Harrier.
—Wow, that’s incredible! That’s a really great story.
Suzuki: Yeah, and it’s why our attitude to bugs was pretty laid back: “if it works, we’ll use it.”
—Thank you for your time today.
Space Harrier – 1996 Developer Interview
originally featured in Sega Saturn Magazine
Hiroshi Kawaguchi – Composer
Satoshi “Bin’ Mifune – Programmer
—So, starting off, how does it feel today seeing Space Harrier included in the Sega Ages collection?
Hiroshi: Space Harrier came out in 1985. It’s 1996 now… (laughs) I imagine most high school and middle school kids today don’t know it.
Mifune: Yeah, it makes you wonder how they’ll see it, kids today I mean.
—How did each of you get involved in the original development of Space Harrier?
Mifune: As soon as I joined Sega, they put me to work on Hang On (laughs), and as soon as that was finished, Space Harrier began.
Hiroshi: For me, at that time I wasn’t yet doing sound exclusively. I was just a programmer, and I had only worked on console games up to then. In my spare time I created the music for Hang On, and from that, they invited me to work on the music for Space Harrier too.
—There had never been a 3D shooting game like Space Harrier before.
Mifune: After Hang On, I was saying I really wanted to work on a shooting game. And I thought if we did one, we should maybe go for a 3D game.
—The Hang On cabinet allowed you to move the motorcycle freely on your own, but in Space Harrier, the cabinet actually responded to your movements.
Mifune: Yeah, and that’s why we designed the enemy patterns in such a way that the player had to move up, down, left and right a lot to defeat them, so that the cabinet would move more.
—Whose idea was it, to make the seat move?
Hiroshi: The idea for the moving seat had been around since before Space Harrier, I believe, but they had been unable to realize it until then.
Mifune: This is not directly related to Space Harrier, but Yu Suzuki would often tell us how when he first joined Sega, the very first work he did was to design a prototype of a hydraulic-powered moving seat. That was not the specific model that ended up being used for Space Harrier, but figuring out how to design a hydraulic seat that someone could actually sit in, stably, was his first job. (laughs) So I think that experience influenced the development of Space Harrier one way or another.
—How long did you have to develop Space Harrier?
Mifune: If I recall, we exhibited it at the AM Show in September of that year, so it was an unusually short development cycle. At the time, Sega had just moved their main offices, but the Harrier team alone got to stay behind and continue working at the old office, on the 4th floor.
Hiroshi: We used all the moving boxes to sleep on, when we had to pull all-nighters. (laughs) But the team itself only had 8 people, which is relatively small when you compare it to today.
—Were there any disagreements among the team, about what kind of game to make, etc?
Hiroshi: No, not really. It was a very harmonious time, with everyone working together… the mood was kind of like a cultural festival.1 (laughs) I don’t remember there being any rejected songs either. Well, there were some that I rejected myself, but.
Mifune: I remember talking about how one of your songs, the first version of the Stage 1 theme, resembled a Seiko Matsuda song.
Hiroshi: Yeah, yeah, I remember that. I didn’t notice it until you mentioned it, but after that I couldn’t help but hear the resemblance. (laughs) But I didn’t really mind, I said.
—What was your concept for the Space Harrier music?
Hiroshi: Yu Suzuki told me he had a “Neverending Story” image in mind, and that he wanted each song to be long enough to play (without looping) through the entire stage. But actually, the first song I wrote was really long. (laughs) We talked about what to do with it, and decided to change the stage for it, and have it play from the middle.
—I’ve heard the Space Harrier first used a fighter jet for the player character… is that true?
Mifune: It is, yeah. But our very first plan was actually a helicopter. The initial planning doc for Space Harrier was this thick tome, very detailed. But Suzuki wanted to make the player a human, and so we ended up not referring to the plans that much, and actually used the back pages more as a notepad for our own ideas. (laughs) When it came time to do the AM Show exhibition, we still hadn’t decided on the player character, so for the time being we just put the fighter jet in there.
After that, Yu Suzuki went to management and directly pleaded with them to let the player be a human with superpowers… he said if the game didn’t sell well, he would agree to not take his salary for that time.
—I’d also like to know where the ideas for all the very unique bosses and enemy characters came from.
Hiroshi: Well, there’s the Dom enemies from Gundam. We even had the temerity to name them Dom. (laughs)
Mifune: The robotic designs were all my doing. (laughs) Suzuki was a fan of all the dragon and fantasy style characters. When you combined that with my love for all things mecha, it resulted in a really weird world. For the animations, back then there were no convenient software tools for designing and animating 3D models, so we had to do everything by hand, mapping the pixels out on graph paper first, then converting it to data, checking how it looked in the game, making revisions, and on and on. (laughs)
When I think back on it now, I can see that my current understanding of the importance of overall game balance is owed, in part, to my experience on Space Harrier… but at the time, I had zero formal study as a programmer, and I remember looking around nervously at my colleagues with a constant sense of “am I doing this right…?” (laughs)
—Hiroshi, how did it feel to switch over to being a full-time composer after Space Harrier?
Mifune: When it comes to the sound, I remember you put a lot more effort into Space Harrier than Hang On.
Hiroshi: The music for Hang On was really more of a “side job” for me (laughs), and yeah, Space Harrier is the first project where I really felt that I treated it like a genuine challenge. However, when I listen to those songs now, I cringe a little bit at how often I used simplistic A Minor and G Minor progressions. (laughs) I couldn’t make something that naive today. (laughs) But writing that really long song, which was a solid composition all the way through, was a big personal milestone for me.
Space Harrier – 1986 Developer Interview
originally featured in the 2/86 edition of BEEP
—Hang On only came out a short while ago. Were Hang On and Space Harrier being developed at the same time, then?
Suzuki: No, we started working on Space Harrier after finishing Hang On. So sometime around mid-July of last year, is when we started Space Harrier’s development.
—Where did the idea for Space Harrier come from?
Suzuki: The idea for Space Harrier really began with us wanting to create a game with a moving seat, or cockpit.
—I see. The moving cockpit is this game’s big selling point, for sure!
Suzuki: The original idea for Space Harrier started from a planning document that another developer at Sega created. My main job was coordinating the work of translating that planning document into the actual elements (graphic design, sound, programming) of a real game.
—That reminds me, at the AM Show, the player character was actually a fighter jet.
Suzuki: Yeah, actually, in our original planning docs, the protagonist was a helicopter. Then it became a fighter jet at some point, and for the official game we changed it to a super-soldier, that is to say, a human. I guess you could say that was where our efforts to make a more visually appealing player character ended up.
—Was there anything else in Space Harrier that turned out differently from how you originally imagined it?
Suzuki: Personally, at first I wanted to make a 3D adventure or role-playing style game. But that would have taken too long to develop, so…
—So you’re saying, look forward to that next time?!
Suzuki: Hmm, well, maybe yeah.
—What aspects of Space Harrier are you particularly proud of?
Suzuki: The color. The staff really did a great job there, and as the development progressed, the colors got closer and closer to how I had envisioned them.
—How many colors can the Space Harrier hardware put out?
Suzuki: Well, in terms of the number of colors alone, there have been games before with that range. Hang On was capable of that too. However, bringing out the full potential of the color—that’s the real challenge. I think we finally know how to get the most out of it now.
—The graphics in Space Harrier really pack a punch.
Suzuki: They do. This is something we’ve aimed at in our previous games, but using a lot of intermediary, gradient colors and half-tones, and pastel colors… we’ve done that in our previous games too, but I think it’s especially well-done here. Most shooting games up to now have employed simple black backgrounds, right? But we didn’t want to convey a dark mood to the players like that. This was something we paid attention to and tried to avoid in the 5 courses of Hang On, too.
—How many different sprites does Space Harrier use?
Suzuki: Well, there’s so many, I don’t really know the exact number. Plus we used multiple sprites for the same character, for different little animations and for color changes. It took 1.2 megs of memory to fit all the data for the character graphics.
—Wow! That makes sense though, since the sprites are so large. By the way, in creating the moving seat for Space Harrier, what were some of the things you focused on?
Suzuki: The moving seat is all about creating a sense of immersion in the game world—which after all, is really what graphics and music are trying to accomplish, too. To be honest, I wish the response time of the seat (to your movements) could have been even a little swifter, but I guess now I’m just being greedy.
—Finally, if I had to sum up Space Harrier in one sentence, I would say it weds high-tech hardware to equally impressive game design. How’s that sound?!
Suzuki: (with pride) That sounds perfect.
—Thank you for your time today!
Space Harrier – 1986 Composer Comments
with composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi; originally featured in BEEP
The first time I heard this song in the actual game, I gasped with surprise. If I can be frank, I was deeply moved. It was as if a single ray of sunlight had pierced the shroud of gloom of a dark winter day. For the listener, I wanted them to experience that wide-eyed feeling, of hope and energy swelling in your breast, and when the lively beat kicks in, it’s the voice of heaven itself…….well, something like that!
I wanted an ending theme that was moving, theatrical, and majestic—something that would really get the tears flowing. Make sure you’ve got your handkerchief nearby when you listen! (haha, there’s no way, I know)
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