Takahashi Meijin and the History of Caravan STG

Takahashi Meijin and the History of Caravan Shooting (2010)

This fascinating interview with Takahashi Meijin looks at Hudson’s caravan STG phenomenon that took place across Japan from 1985 to 1994. The term ”caravan” refers to a shmup that is played for score in a short period, usually 2 to 5 minutes. Be sure to check out the accompanying youtube clips with footage from the competitions!

—In 1983, the Famicom was born. It changed the way games were played; instead of playing outdoors like before, everyone was now playing inside their homes. They called it the “Famicom Boom,” and you did promotional work as the “Famicom Meijin” at this time.1 From your perspective as an adult, how did this transition in the way children played games feel to you?

Takahashi: Yeah, transition is the right word. It was very clear to me then that console video games would become children’s new primary leisure activity. They had grown up watching TV, and now there was this thing that let you control what was on the screen, so I think it was only natural. And it wasn’t just a matter of control like flipping pages in a picture book; actual games were now possible. So I knew children would soon be completely obsessed.

However, the social mood surrounding games at that time wasn’t very favorable. Anyway, as Hudson’s PR I sent out the message to the public loud and clear that video games were a healthy way for kids to play, and luckily everyone ended up agreeing, it seems. If we hadn’t done that kind of promotion, perhaps the stigma of “game centers = delinquency” would have attached to video games as well. I’m just really glad we were able to avoid that.

Takahashi Meijin

—Did the famous Meijin slogan “Games: 1 hour per day!” also come from those PR efforts?

Takahashi: Yeah, that was a small part of it.

—What other efforts did you take?

Takahashi: “Play together with your kids!” was a big one. Typically, conversations between parents and children can be quite difficult, right? Especially with Fathers, you know? Maybe its a little easier for children to talk with their Mothers. So we thought that, be it Super Mario, or STGs, or what-have-you, that parents and children could communicate more easily through games… “There’s a secret here… here’s how you get these coins!”

There just aren’t that many play activities children and parents can enjoy together. Even with sports, there’s such a huge physical difference between adults and children. But with video games, 80% of the time its the children who are better than the adults! Parents might watch admiringly at first, but then they’ll feel like trying it out themselves, and then you’ve got something where both kids and parents are competing together or against each other. That kind of joint play is very rare I think.

I mean, for example, you have begoma games like BeyBlade, which is popular right now. But spinning that top takes skill, and its probably more likely that an adult will have some technique and be better at it. Its the same with marbles, menko, or takeuma… you’ve got that age and experience gap. But with video games, that isn’t the case.

—Right, it levels the playing field and allows children and parents to step into the same ring.

Takahashi: At our Bomberman competitions, we’d have Adult vs. Child matches, and sons would always pick their own fathers as their first opponent. Even when we’d jokingly scold them on the mic, they’d still always pick their fathers. I wondered why they did that, when they could just fight together on the same side.

—It was probably less about winning and losing, and more about just giving their old man a hard time. (laughs)

Takahashi: I think it was great that we gave children and parents something they could talk about together through games, without the age gap being an issue. I was saying that back in the day too. But probably one of our biggest motivations with our PR campaigns was to make sure that games weren’t children’s only experiences in life. So the “1 hour per day” thing wasn’t some fixed number we came up with… it didn’t especially matter if it was 2, or 3 hours per day a child played. The point was we didn’t think it was good if a child were asked “what did you do this afternoon?” and all he could say was “video games.” So that per day time limit we gave was really about getting them to do other things.

We weren’t saying “you have to clear the game in under an hour!”, but there were people who misunderstood it that way, unfortunately. “I can’t clear this RPG in an hour!”, they’d complain. Or they’d ask me “Can YOU clear Adventure Island in an hour, Meijin?” And of course I can’t. (laughs)

Images from the Hudson STG Caravans.

—Hudson’s National STG Caravan competitions were held up as a unique social phenomenon, even appearing in newspapers and the evening news. Seeing elementary school children enamored with STGs must have been a sight to behold; you rarely see anything like that today. What aspects of STG do you think were so appealing to children then?

Takahashi: I think being able to compete with your friends was the biggest part of it. And that was why we did the National Caravan events, to see who was number one. Simply tapping faster or being able to dodge better might get you a higher score. You could also say these are games that don’t require lot of thinking while playing. The truth is, with STG, overthinking things is bad. Just shoot, dodge, and watch your score go up. The better you got, the higher your score, and you might glance over at the person sitting next to you and think “I can beat this guy!” In everyday life we’d probably call that aspect of STG the desire to “gamble” or “risk,” and I think this spirit comes out most readily in the STG genre. It happens right before your eyes with your score, and its immediately gratifying.

For the Caravan competitions, qualifying matches would take two minutes, and final rounds would take five. But only 10 out of 250 people would be selected for the final rounds, so it all came down to who had practiced and who had not. And there were typical features of competitions, like “if this guy fails to qualify, I might have a shot!” It was all very simple and easy to understand. You scored and got ahead just by killing things. I think that simplicity, where you didn’t have to think about scoring systems that were too complicated, was a very good thing.

—That reminds me of old games like menko and begoma, that sense of immediacy where you knew right away if it was a win or a loss.

Takahashi: Right, right. Since these are games for kids, you don’t want the rules to be too detailed and complex. And yet if you don’t have clearly defined rules, it won’t work either. “If you get hit by a bullet you die, and go back several screens.” The Famicom games had standardized those rules, so no one complained or argued about them. When we first started the Caravans, games didn’t have any timers or caravan modes built into them. You kept scoring until a judge with a stopwatch actually said “times up.” That simplicity was great for kids, you know.

—Do you think the joy of STG lies in its simplicity, then?

Takahashi: I think so–that simplicity and exhiliration you feel. Also, the feeling you get when you watch another skilled player and go “I think I could do that!” It might in fact be very difficult, but maybe you can get close. You then see how difficult it is to get there, and I think that aspect of STG teaches you the value of practice, and how things aren’t always as easy as they look. I think that’s very much a part of the appeal of STGs.

Rare footage from STG caravans.

What I mean by simplicity and exhiliration, is like… the rules are simple: when your ship gets hit you die, so shooting down enemies is the only way to avoid that. And when you shoot down a wave of 8 enemies in a row, “pew pew pew pew!” and get a bonus, there’s an immediate thrill to it. That’s what I think is good about STGs. And if I say this I’ll probably get a lot of criticism for it, but… regarding the STGs today which are more like “dodging games,” I wish they’d designate them as another genre or something. Make a distinction between “shooting games” and “dodging games.”

—By dodging games, you must mean those STGs with lots of bullets all over the screen?

Takahashi: Yeah, it seems strange to just call them all shooting games. They probably want to say that, “oh, its easy to dodge since the hitbox is so small”, but I think that to the average person it looks impossible. And that has led to a great decline in the number of STG players, I think.

—There certainly are people who take one look at a screen filled with bullets and will just walk away.

Takahashi: Yeah, so for me, STGs are games where a reasonable number of enemies appear, fire a reasonable number of bullets, and you feel a kind of refreshing exhiliration as you shoot them down: “Ahh, that felt good.” That’s a STG to me.

To make Lazaro appear in Star Soldier you had to be able to tap 16 times in one second. So we had scoring tricks too, but they weren’t essential to the game… it was just “if you want to score high, you’ll need to do this.” You shouldn’t have to pay attention to scoring to enjoy a game. Just surviving and progressing through the stage, enjoying that feeling of “ah, I’m doing good, I’m shooting them all down.” STG doesn’t have to mean aiming for a high score. Sometimes its fun to clear a game by not scoring at all, you know? There’s all different kinds of ways to play these games, and there’s a kind of fulfillment to each. So in that sense, if one gets a feeling of satisfaction from dodging games like “I sure dodged that well!”, then I think that’s great too.

—Star Soldier was a game where you had to create auto-fire by yourself, and that physicality made it kind of like a sports game. And later, even when autofire was added, Hudson’s STGs balanced that by requiring you to aim precisely at enemies.

Takahashi: Yeah, in our later games.

—Right. That Hudson style of STG… you don’t see it much anymore, do you?

Takahashi: Yeah, they stopped selling well. Part of it is the games we made just kept getting harder and harder−too hard. For us, running Caravans each year, we had to keep raising new and more difficult hurdles to satisfy players who had competed in previous events and gotten better. Eventually, this caused the players with the lowest skill (you could say they formed the base of a pyramid) to see these games and think, “There’s no way I can compete.” So I think it ended up being a problem when we started making games that catered to that tiny tier at the top of the pyramid.

1986 special with Takahashi Meijin, in which he explains strategies for Hudson’s shmup Star Soldier.

I think if we had done a better job tuning the difficulty of our STGs so that anyone could enjoy them and achieve high scores with some effort, then the Caravan events might have continued for several more years.

—To your fans, your games never lost their appeal, though.

Takahashi: That was because the basics were still all there. STGs are the simplest kind of game to make, so its not as if they’ll ever completely vanish, but unfortunately its no longer a genre that the masses care much about. The impression most people have is that this is a genre of games only people with skill can play.

—Lately new STGs have tried various ways to be more accessible for beginners, and you’ve got STG mini-games mixed into party games… so it does seem there are still developers around who love STGs.

Takahashi: Right. You know, I’d love to see that volcano of enthusiasm for STG erupt once more.

—STG Love Explosion! (laughs)

Takahashi: You guys at Gameside do interviews every issue… if you put them collected them you’d have a book’s worth by now. So if there’s anything extra you want to ask me about… (laughs)

—Yeah, this is our 4th feature on Caravan Shooting. Actually we wanted to ask about Bomberman and more, but this magazine specializes in STGs, so…

Takahashi: Feel free. Bomberman came out in 85, and this year marks our 25th anniversary. Why don’t you make a magazine focusing on party games? It could focus on party and co-op/vs games together. I think there’s a lot of hardcore fans who are crazy about Bomberman’s vs modes.

—Yeah. Come to think of it, Hudson really does focus on games you can enjoy together with family and friends. And it was the Caravan Shooting events which brought that friendly competition out on a national level. Thank you for everything today!

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  1. There were a number of video game celebrities in Japan in the 80s, usually associated with a particular company, who were called Meijin (literally “Master” or “Expert”). Although Takahashi Meijin himself had some skills, most of the Meijins were not actually good at games, and their role was more of a PR agent or hype guy for the company in question.

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