Takatsuna Senba - 2001 Developer Interview
This lengthy interview originally appeared in the legendary gaming magazine CONTINUE in 2001, and was later recompiled with others in "the style of game" book printed in 2012. The first half of this interview covers Senba's experiences in the anime industry (on Char's Counterattack, in particular), the transition to Taito and game development, and the design of his most widely lauded creations, Metal Black and Gun Frontier.
—I joined the game industry because of Metal Black, so doing this interview today, I'm on cloud nine here.
Senba: I'm happy to hear that.
—You started out working in the anime industry, didn't you?
Senba: That's right. When I was 18 I inquired about working at Tezuka Pro, and producer Eichi Yamamoto was the one who gave me my big break.
—Had you been working towards being an animator in high school? Like making your own independent productions?
Senba: No, not at all. I'm entirely unsuited to doujinshi and things like that. I liked film, you see, and I'd always wanted to direct someday. But that industry had this weird thing where, if you started out drawing, the pathway to directing actually was much more narrow and difficult. (laughs) After that I worked freelance for a time, moving between different productions, but it was Toshiyuki Hashimoto at Studio Z5 who really opened my eyes.
—In what way?
Senba: That you could make money with anime. (laughs) Working with Hajime Kamegaki and Chiharu Satou, learning exactly what went into the production of a single frame of animation… it was a very stimulating place to work, in many ways. After that I returned to being freelance, and I had the chance to work with people like Sachiko Kamimura (nee Uemura) and Shuji Iuchi. And there were many others who I'm indebted to from that time in my life.
—You were the animation director for Char's Counterattack as well.
Senba: Originally, I was just there to help out. Apparently Char's Counterattack was supposed to be handled entirely by a company called Giga, but the workload became physically impossible for them to manage alone, so I was brought on as a key animator. Well, Hidetoshi Omori from Giga saw my beam and funnel animation, and said "We don't have anyone who can draw the weapon systems animation, could you help direct that?" So by and by, one thing lead to another, and my workload kept increasing. (laughs)
At first I would call Omori with questions like, "What do you think of this cut?", but one day, without warning, I stopped being able to reach him. I later heard that several of Giga's key staff members had quit a few months after the project started. But I didn't know anything about that at the time, so I just kept working, creating cut after cut. By the time I realized what had happened, I'd completed about 90% of the mecha scenes, and even if I had wanted to simplify things, there was no one longer anyone for me to consult with. My work necessitated a massive amount of revisions to the Mobile Suits. I felt bad for the in-between (douga) and touch-up (shiage) animators.
—Char's Counterattack features a truly incredible number of Mobile Suits though.
Senba: The production had a lot of extremely talented key animators who were basically animation director-tier quality. Apparently, they'd been asked to follow certain patterns, but there was a lot of resistance from the animators to that.
Director Tomino had encouraged the animators to draw the Gundam to their hearts' content; the problem, however, was that everyone just drew the robots themselves. No one had studied lasers or particle beams, so our explanation for the beam weapons was that they convert metal particles into high-temperature plasma, and use the force of opposing magnetic fields to unleash that energy as a beam. This weapon also appears in Metal Black.
—So Metal Black also uses the same kind of "Mega Particle Cannon" from Gundam, then.
Senba: Yeah, a more intensified version. In Metal Black we also included the idea that it can be used infinitely. Beam weapons aren't as thin as lasers, so the way we draw them is totally different. The beam gets wider and wider as it travels, and it's a difficult weapon to use in a place without a magnetic field, like Earth. That's why in Metal Black, in the stages like the Black Hole, and the where you're escaping the atmosphere, we made it so you can't use the beam but have to rely on missiles.
—It's amazing how you thought things out that far. I hadn't imagined that the beam cannons of Gundam and Metal Black were related. (laughs) I understand that after Char's Counterattack, you left the anime industry.
Senba: I was actually working on two other productions during Char, and my elbow bone got detached from drawing too much. (laughs) Then later, while I was in the middle of drawing the opening layouts for Mashin Hero Wataru, I lost the ability to move my fingers entirely. But I was getting married too and there was no time to be depressed, so I ended up taking a job with Taito.
—Why did you pick Taito then?
Senba: Because it was easy, that's the simple reason. (laughs) Taito was known for it's shooting games then. Though to be honest, the game I really loved was Namco's Galaga. (laughs)
—What kind of work did you do in the beginning at Taito?
Senba: When I was hired, I told them "I don't really want to do much drawing", so I expected to be placed in a planning role, but before I knew it I found myself working on sprites and graphics. As time went by, I helped out on various projects, and gradually came to understand how games are made. Later I went and talked to Taito about wanting to work in planning, but all the meetings they had me attend were for games that were completely stuck for one reason or another. My first planning work came after that, when I was asked to spice up the attack patterns for each of the bosses in Darius II, including Killer Hijia and the hermit crab battleship.
Next I spent a month revising some of the stages for Battle Shark, and I believe that, before Gun Frontier was released, I also did similar revisions for Majestic Twelve.
—Oh, that's the one where you defend the cows from UFOs.
Senba: The Majestic Twelve development was being headed up by a younger member of the shooting team at Taito, and management was complaining about it, so I was brought on to help out at the same time I worked on Gun Frontier. I was once again given a month to make revisions, a timetable I was now familiar with. I made changes to the backstory and the graphics, while making sure not to destroy the younger team's sensibilities. It startled me the first time they gave me a schedule like that with Master of Weapon, but that's been the Taito pattern ever since.
—What did you do on Master of Weapon?
Senba: The first player character was a motorbike. They'd modeled it after a certain famous manga. Then at the final meeting, the business guys ordered them to change it to a plane and that's what they did. And you know, I remember thinking then, "These last minute revisions can't keep happening; we've got to fundamentally change the way we're making games." For the projects I led, I created a formal, complete development process for game planning: this included having a central planning document, schedule, budget, everything.
—Was Gun Frontier the first game you planned and designed at Taito, then?
Senba: Metal Black and Dino Rex were actually first, in terms of the order I did the work
Senba: The original plans for Metal Black called for a 2-screen cabinet like Darius, you see.
—So you're saying the planning order was actually Metal Black, then Dino Rex, and finally Gun Frontier.
Senba: That's right. But Gun Frontier was the first project I initiated from the ground up, so I asked for a veteran programmer for my team. Unfortunately Taito came back and said "For a shooting game? Anyone can program those!" (laughs) So I was given two new guys instead.
—They were both new?!
Senba: Yeah. Before that Takamasa Hori had worked on Cadash, and Naoya Kuroki had worked on Battle Shark.
—Those games are very polished though, they certainly don't feel like they were created by new hires. Where did the concept for Gun Frontier come from? Everything is "gun" themed, good and bad guys alike...
Senba: My basic idea was to make a vertical STG that could distinguish itself from other companies' games. To that end we put some weird, unique sprites/characters in there. At the same time, because we had to trim down the data, we needed a motif that would work within our memory constraints, and "gun" was what we came up with.
—Then it had no relationship to Leiji Matsumoto's Gun Frontier...?
Senba: Officially, the game is called "Gun and Frontier" overseas. At first we tried to copyright the title "Frontier" by itself, but we were blocked by Brother, who makes the Frontier sewing machine. (laughs) "Well, let's put something in front then…" and that's how it became Gun Frontier. Manga trademarks are handled in a different division, so it didn't attract anyone's attention, and you can't do anything after it's been registered.
—What's the meaning behind Frontier?
Senba: I had been told by people inside and outside of Taito, that the reason Taito's games couldn't stand up to Namco or Sega was because we were always using underpowered pcb hardware.
—People did say that, yeah.
Senba: Back then, there was an engineer at Taito named Katsujiro Fujimoto. He passed away in a traffic accident, and left Taito the F2 hardware board he had developed, and we had to use the F-series boards without any manual or documentation. Anyway, the first work we did on Gun Frontier was to investigate the capabilities of the F2 board. When we got into it, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the power of this hardware exceeded anything on the market then. Alright then! Let's learn everything we can about this system and show everyone what it can do! So going back to our determination to use the Frontier name… to rehabilitate the reputation of the F-board series, we weren't going to be defeated by some sewing machine! That was Gun Frontier.
—And after that, you began the Gun Frontier development itself.
Senba: That's right. After the budget and schedule were done, we did the actual design/planning and graphics work. The graphics for Gun Frontier and Metal Black were both essentially done by myself and one other person.
—Did you struggle with having enough variation, given that every character design used a gun motif?
Senba: No, I didn't have any trouble at all with that. One idea I had was for the guns themselves to gradually look more and more modern as the game progressed, starting from a western frontier era. Also, consistency and commonality between the sprites and characters, that was important to me too I think.
—When you were making games, did you feel like you wanted to do things with this medium that were impossible in your anime days...?
Senba: I did have the sense that, after I submitted the initial planning document, then I could basically do whatever I wanted. On the other hand, anime doesn't have the hardware and technological limitations that game developers must contend with. Until then I'd say that part of me felt a certain open hostility to video games. Taito was a company who had reaped massive profits from this one game Space Invaders, after all. But I don't think anyone had ever stopped and asked themselves, "What is a game?" Many have knowledge about games, but few have understanding on this point. They have no reason to ask that question. As humans we're all products of our environment. And our "environment" is nothing more than the sum total of all we see around us. Games use the television screen to tell stories—so you can't just treat them as simple games. The TV screen is a potent weapon! And I don't think our higher-ups appreciated that. I could say the same of other developers, of course.
—I think that explains why your games contain strong messages. I always saw Gun Frontier as a simple 1v1 showdown, which I admit is a fairly superficial intrepretation, but did you intend any deeper messages?
Senba: All the writing in the game is my own. Gun Frontier is, indeed, the story of a war, but I also included details like showing how the boats spill oil when you destroy them… I was consciously trying to include "good" subliminal messages like that.
—Where did the idea for the bomb stock system come from?
Senba: Well, the tried-and-true, simply joy of collecting bombs and unleashing them is basically inherent to these games I think. It was nothing more complicated than that.
—Also, what about the way autofire is tied into rank? Where the game gets harder if you have autofire on.
Senba: That… was something of a mistake, I think, in terms of the game design.
Senba: Personally, I wanted Gun Frontier to be a game more for the average player than for hardcore STG maniacs.
Senba: Yeah, and the bombing system, where your ship fires out napalm in the opposite direction that you're moving, when I added that I was originally thinking of the hapless salaryman running away from enemy fire, and how a bomb like that would help him out. Unfortunately, one of our programmers had his own particular ideas about how a STG should be. (laughs) Back then, the biggest problem for us was how to balance the playtime for both normal and "maniac" players. Hardcore players can get 10, 20, even 30 minutes out of a single coin. For that reason, Taito had a general rule: "an average playtime of 1.5 minutes per life".
—Wow, that's harsh.
Senba: I knew that if we implemented that, ultimately it would end up driving customers away, so I tried to come up with a feature that would adjust things dynamically depending on the skill of the player. Regular players use the bomb button to clear the bullets on the screen and make things easier. But maniacs stock their bombs and try to use them as little as possible. I wanted to find the balance between those two playstyles. I think adding the autofire rank system on top of that was going too far, but I had to consider the morale of the team. I fought with them over that to the end, but in the end I wasn't strong enough…
—I'd like to ask some questions about the setting now. What is the true nature of the Wild Lizards that appear in both Metal Black and Gun Frontier...?
Senba: I don't like the way Gun Frontier and Metal Black have been confused like this. The Wild Lizards have no connection to Metal Black whatsoever.
—Really, there's no connection? The in-game chronology says Gun Frontier takes place in 2120, and Metal Black is 2040, so I thought there was some kind of link there.
Senba: I bear some of the responsibility for inviting that misunderstanding. I made the decision not to include a Japanese translation for the English text in Metal Black. Basically, I was worried that the game industry wasn't ready for a serious, dark story like Metal Black. So I created some documents, intended for internal circulation for Taito management, with a dummy story that said "In Metal Black you are tasked with saving the world from the Wild Lizard invasion force." (laughs)
Unfortunately, those documents ended up getting sent to Gamest by Taito's PR department. Some of the hardcore fans remembered that story, but if you read the subtitles in the game, I think you'll see clearly that there's no connection.
—Also, one motif I noticed in Metal Black is that the enemies use the same weapons as you.
Senba: I was trying to say that if you look closely at another person, you'll see yourself. The early draft of the story for Metal Black had more expansive lore and setting, but of course there should be a way to express that through visuals. That's why, the first stage of Metal Black, it doesn't really match the rest of the setting. However, in order to convey the sense of "dissonance" with reality that's found in the later stages, it was necessary to first show players the familiar Japan they know—Shinjuku being attacked by a giant monster, that kind of thing. By leading with that imagery, it makes the themes in the second half of the game hit harder.
—Ah, I see. Yeah, if you start suddenly with a completely surreal setting, no one will be able to follow you later. You used Shinjuku as a hook. So as I thought, then, that huge monitor on the side of the building in stage 1 was an intentional reference to Shinjuku?
Senba: Well, it's monochrome, but yeah. (laughs)
—In stage 1, the first enemies that attack you are those fighter jets... was there a deeper meaning behind that?
Senba: Those were stolen and piloted by rebels within the Earth military who were against the unfreezing of the Black Fly. So those first fighter jets are actually from Earth.
And the backgrounds there are meant to slowly show you what happened to Earth, and while you're taking that all in, finally the enemy appears. It's a digest of sorts, of the preceding months and years.
—The Black Fly is more than just the latest weapon, isn't it?
Senba: It's a copy of the enemy's systems. By combining "Newalone" antimatter particles with protons, it has an unlimited source of fuel and can fly indefinitely. This was my way of cleaning up the apparent paradox of STG games (that ships can fly forever), and something I hadn't been able to address in Gun Frontier.
—There's also the beam weapons, which are used by both the player and enemies.
Senba: That was something I did in Gun Frontier too, having there be no difference between yours and the enemy's weapon systems. You'll notice there's no spread-shot power-up, for example. Management did tell me "Make the bullets be more fan-shaped!" though.
—There was a lot of debate about the shot. I often heard people make the general remark that "the presentation and visuals are exceptional, but as a STG game it's a bit lacking." If you looked deeper though there was a lot of skill expression with managing the width of the shot. Was this also part of your stated goal of "returning to the roots of STG"?
Senba: That was part of it, but the biggest reason was that I'd grown to dislike Darius.
Senba: To be honest up to then I'd always liked finding little cheats in games. With Street Fighter, too, it brought a smile to my face when I discovered the cheese tactic of crouching and sweeping over and over. I'd included some "trolling" touches on Darius II, but I was disturbed by what I saw at the location test for the game: a crowd of several people were gathered around the player, and they were all desperately scribbling down notes. I thought, "What the hell! This isn't cram school guys! Is this really your idea of fun…?!"
...to be continued in Part II, coming soon!...
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