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…?!"
—How long did it take to make Metal Black?
Senba: I was told to make it in 3 months. That ultimately turned into six months, but there was almost no time for playtesting and tuning. So when people point out to me various shortcomings about Metal Black, there's really nothing I can say, since it couldn't be helped. I knew about those flaws when we released it. But there's more than one way to enjoy a game, and I don't think its commercial value is ruined by those things either.
—Yeah. There are fans out there for whom that opening scene on stage 1, where "Born to be free" plays against the backdrop of the sunset, more than justifies the cost. Were you consciously trying to synchronize the music and graphics there?
Senba: Yeah, it was an idea I had at the very beginning. Because in the past, Taito didn't take the music very seriously.
—What! But Taito's music is full of hits.
Senba: Do you remember there was a brief period at Taito, where the game music had a lot of high frequencies/notes?
—Like Darius, yeah.
Senba: Right, right. That was because someone from sales said "People can't really hear the low-end sounds when they're playing, can they?"
—Oh, I see.
Senba: As for Metal Black, one of the composers at Taito, Yack, saw the plans for Gun Frontier and he said "There's no way we can make a game like this at Taito." Yack had been assigned to compose the music for Runark (Growl), but he was also doing the sound production on Gun Frontier. And as the Gun Frontier's development progressed, he saw that the Gun Frontier composer had written the music just as I'd originally requested…
—Did he have a change of heart, then?
Senba: After that he said "I want to do the music for Metal Black myself!" We had subcontracted out the music for Gun Frontier, and we gave them this piece of guidance: "The low-end sounds may not be heard by people around the cabinet, but that's ok. The player will feel the vibrations through their joystick, so don't compose this as 'game BGM', please compose it as you would a regular piece of music." For Metal Black, I told Yack I wanted to go even further. I assured him not to worry, that I would deal with any objections from Taito.
Almost every element of a game is contained in this single box, the arcade cabinet. It is sound, and sound alone, that can "escape" from those confines, and I wanted the music for Metal Black to evoke more of what lied outside the cabinet.
I worked very closely with Yack, from the beginning, about the feel of the music for Metal Black. That's why he was the only other person who really knew the story of Metal Black.
—The other developers didn't know the story...?
Senba: The new people who joined the planning department around that time had been very influenced by RPGs, and many of them were under the impression that "planning means writing the scenario and story." (laughs) I didn't want to reinforce that idea. Also, if I just dumped everything on the team at once it would make the programmers lose interest. So I shared plot points with the programmers, but the only person who I told all the details too--"this is the message I'm trying to convey on this stage"--was Yack.
For example, stage one uses four different background layers, but the front three are looped. I told Yack "The scrolling ends at X min X sec, so please make the music end there too." That's why the music doesn't loop, but ends just so. When I saw it implemented, that was when I got the first glimpse that everything else was going to be OK on this game.
—I feel like I finally understand what makes Metal Black so wonderful. Also, on stage 2, where the moon breaks apart, was that a visual metaphor? Or is it really supposed to be breaking up...?
Senba: The former. I wanted Metal Black to be distinct from Gun Frontier, so there's many psychological depictions like that.
—Alo, there's two endings for Metal Black, but which is the bad ending?
Senba: It's made in such a way that you can't really say which is which. However, the military coup and the launching of all those ships towards Nemesis, that was a mistake.
—You're saying it would have been better if they hadn't attacked...?
Senba: I don't know if I should try explaining it in words, but here goes… Earth was invaded by something mysterious, something completely different from any lifeform on Earth, a silicon-based lifeform. They were born on Mercury, and were always seeking an opportunity for evolution, but they used human civilization to accomplish that. They evolved with the knowledge they acquired from computers, and seeking to multiply, they came to Earth. However, they are not intelligent aliens per se.
—I see, they're more like a phenomenon of nature.
Senba: And so they arrived in a hail of meteorites which vaporized the oceans, transforming our planet into a drier environment more conducive to them. The people on Earth could not understand that these were lifeforms, so they named them "Nemesis" and went to war. However, in the course of that the Earth was enveloped in the dark thick clouds of a nuclear winter. And this environment is not one that Nemesis can survive in.
—Then, what you're saying is that the humans just needed to wait.
Senba: Yeah… the more advanced weaponry that Earth sends to Nemesis, the higher and further Nemesis will evolve. It's a trap without end. Knowing this, once the government saw the enemy had stopped, they tried to declare a ceasefire and restrain the military, but the military would not be appeased. These new weapons were already complete, and they wanted to strike now and destroy the enemy once and for all. Ultimately, the very first Black Fly was really the test pilot used to spark the military's revolt.
—He was a scapegoat?
Senba: He served to prove that the Black Fly was a weapon they could fight with. And at the same time, it raised morale for the military coup. Then they used the test pilot's death…
—Right, "We have lost a brave hero today..." Was the final scene with the massive fleet of Black Flies meant to suggest that the enemy would now be getting stronger too, then?
Senba: Jupiter is on the opposite of Mercury, and that's the direction the meteorites fell from, so the military falsely believes that they came from Jupiter. But all those black flies are just heading towards empty space…
—Ahhh...! Was the first test pilot acting on his own free will, by the way?
Senba: In the manga backstory, no. He's been brainwashed by the people plotting the military revolt.
—Wow, what a hopeless, dark story. One more thing: on the last boss, the backgrounds have all those weird psychadelic colors. What was the intent there?
Senba: Well, hold on. There's still hope. No mistake is fatal, if it shows the way forward. (laughs) I think that's hinted at in the ending too.
—I see. Well, what about that cat at the end, what's that about?
Senba: One of the cats eyes represents day, and the other night. It's that duality, and trying to say, "Let's look at ourselves in a more down-to-Earth way." We've grown too disconnected from reality and we need to return to reality, that's the motif of that cat. But you know, as in movies, there's an element of subjectivity. And that's all good and well.
Making Dino Rex
—Another game I've been dying to ask you about is Dino Rex. Were there any story connections to Metal Black?
Senba: None at all. But the theme is the same.
—So these dinosaurs didn't evolve to become the Wild Lizards, or anything like that.
Senba: Wow, that's a neat idea… if that kind of thinking gets people excited, I have no objections. Though I'm afraid I can't follow along. (laughs)
—I think if you'd said "Yes" at this point, it would have become the official canon. (laughs) Did the original idea for Dino Rex come from Street Fighter?
Senba: Hey, that would be alright too. (laughs) As for influences, when I was a kid, I used to play with those Bullmark monster toys. Though I can't entirely deny the influence of Street Fighter I either.
—The graphics for Dino Rex are very unique.
Senba: The animation was all done with real models. There was a lot of uncertainty about the potential of CG in the game industry at that time, and whether it could deliver as a new way of making characters. We pushed the F2 board as far as it could go.
—Dino Rex pushed the envelope in ways other than graphics, too...
Senba: At that time at Taito, there was a company-wide surfeit of new projects. We had too many people, so all the new recruits, they had them work on the Dino Rex project for training.
—So you trained new hires with a game about dinosaurs eating humans. (laughs) Seriously, though, I've always felt like Dino Rex was a near-miss. If only the controls had been a little better...
Senba: I don't know. This will sound like an excuse, but in the first phase of the development, we were not allowed to use more than two buttons for the controls. It was because of the American market, specifically. As time went by Street Fighter II became this massive hit, and suddenly they told us to make it six buttons. In our haste to change everything, we discovered many bugs.
Senba: There were bugs related to the controls that got left in to the end. The Gun Frontier development wrapped in February of 1990, and the following month we began working on both Metal Black and Dino Rex in tandem. During the day, I would go over to the offices of the subcontractor who was working on Dino Rex, then at night I came back to the Taito offices and worked on Metal Black. In the midst of all that back and forth, we missed a bug related to the hit detection.
We discovered just how bad the bug was about a year later, but it wasn't the kind of thing you could quickly fix with just a minor adjustment. On Taito's orders, we took the project back from the subcontractor and set out to fix and re-code it. But Taito kept splitting our time between other projects and work, so I couldn't commit to a full re-do, and instead resolved to just do what we could. That did temporarily make things better, but right at the end of the development, we found more problems. I don't know how it happened.
The hit detection was late one frame; and although we were alotted time to fix it, I chose to ignore it, saying "well, they're dinosaurs, so it should be fine…" It was a grave mistake on my part.
—You thought they were so huge, a little imprecision wouldn't matter.
Senba: It was like, look, no matter how long we extend this development, the more we play the more bugs we're going to find. (laughs)
—By the way, why can't the dinosaurs in Dino Rex turn around? If one gets behind another in the match, the game automatically puts him back in position.
Senba: In the beginning we had a shallow understanding of what a fighting game was, and when two dinosaurs of the same type were fighting it was hard to tell them apart. Also, given their gigantic size, it would often happen that inexperienced players would die almost immediately without knowing what happened, even against the CPU. So we made it where if you receive a really severe blow, you'd have a little time to look up at the instruction sheet and get your bearings.
—It's surprising Dino Rex had these problems, given the incredible perfomance of the F2 on your shooting games...
Senba: No, you know, I think it's really pushing the F2, if you looked under the hood. (laughs) It showed us just how many screen re-writes it could handle. When we were making Gun Frontier, we discovered a bug in the F2 board, so the programmers asked us "please don't do screen re-writes that are going to overburden the board." But the subcontractors that made Dino Rex, they didn't pay any heed to that warning and used screen re-writes all over the place. But as a result, we got a handle on exactly how far we could push the F2.
—Was that bug with the F2 board related to the screen shaking effect in Gun Frontier when you use a bomb?
Senba: No, that was different. For bombs, we used a "noise" flaw that the F2 boards had. The way the screen shakes when you zoom on an enemy plane, that's a characteristic phenomena of the F2 board, and we just tried to find a good way to use it.
—It was buggy, but you used those bugs to your advantage?
Senba: We did something similar with the boss on stage 5 of Metal Black. The effect where his body turns transparent, that's actually a bug. We discovered it during Gun Frontier.
—So bugs can be advantageous too. (laughs) Also, I wanted to mention the part at the end of Dino Rex, where the human dinosaur trainers fight each other. That surprised me. It was like, "What!? What were all these dinosaur fights about then...?!"
Senba: That was a complete parody of Street Fighter II. Not an imitation, but an intentional parody. Explaining that difference to the junior staff was very difficult!
—What market were you aiming at with Dino Rex?
Senba: Gun Frontier was aimed at casual players. Metal Black, from the very start of the planning, was geared more towards maniac-level players. Dino Rex was aimed at the American and European markets.
—Did it do well over there?
Senba: No, not at all. There was a company called Tamco, who had been acting as Taito's sales agent in America, but they went bankrupt and we lost our whole sales network. In the end we re-tooled Dino Rex so it would match Japanese domestic tastes, but we see-sawed back and forth a lot. All those bugs you mentioned were a problem too, of course.
—I get a real sense for how difficult it must have been for you, though. To suddenly switch from shooting game development to a fighting game like that.
Senba: At the time, I was working both as a character designer and shooting game designer at the same time. So Dino Rex was also a chance for me to experiment with character design.
—Wasn't it rough having so much responsibility focused on you though? You left the anime industry because it destroyed your elbow, after all, so why were you working so hard...
Senba: A lot of it is because the younger staff I was looking after, they quit before me. (laughs) For a video game developer, training and raising the next generation is extremely important. A new hire is considered a veteran after about a year and a half. But people kept quitting at Taito, and then we couldn't make "Gun Frontier 3" which we'd been planning, and the dev group "Project: Gun Frontier" was disbanded.
—Gun Frontier 3? You don't mean Dino Rex.
Senba: Yeah. It was a completely different project.
—What kind of game was it?
Senba: At the time, it was a front-view game (first person).
—Wow, so speaking hypothetically, if it had been made, what would it have been like?
Senba: It was very experimental.
—So it was something different from the first-person shooting games that are popular today...?
Senba: Completely different.
—Were you thinking of making it a big-style arcade cabinet? Or just normal?
Senba: Just normal size.
—Was it a separate story from Gun Frontier?
Senba: Yeah. Like Metal Black, it had a completely different story, but the team was the same. We never really got a chance to work on it seriously though. I can look back on this now and laugh, but after Metal Black was finished, and we were stressing out over Dino Rex, Taito held an evaluation meeting to discuss the possibility of a new shooting game on the new F3 boards. As a point of comparison, they had us break out the original Gun Frontier PCB and put it on-screen. At that moment, a group of guys from sales suddenly burst into the room. They looked at the original Gun Frontier and exclaimed, "Whoa, whoa! This new shooting game is amazing." (laughs)
—They didn't even know their own company's game...?!
Senba: I guess they never looked at the games themselves, they just handled the shipping and moving of units. Later, the head of sales told me, "We just decided the number of units we thought we could move based off the fact that it's a shooting game."
—Was this part of why you eventually quit Taito?
Senba: No, it wasn't related. I quit due to family reasons.
—Was it your personal desire to stay at Taito then...?
Senba: Well, I guess I did, but I was tired. I didn't have any ambitions of leaving Taito and joining another game company though.
—What did you do after Taito?
Senba: First I had to return to my family in Ibaraki, but before that, Sega contacted me. I went to their offices, and I was taken to a room with all these indoor plants hanging there, and asked if I was interested in work that involved "thinking about the future of the game centers…" It was a strange conversation.
—I wonder what Sega's recruiter was thinking.
Senba: I thought, hey, maybe this could lead to some illustration work. And we spoke about manga too, about doing sales work in that area. Sometime later Sony (SCE) called me up too.
Senba: There were some developers who had been working on Virtua Fighter and quit Sega, and they wanted us to create something together.
—A gorgeous tag team!
Senba: So I took them up on it, but the guys who had quit Sega, they ended up getting scattered all across Sony. It wasn't clear how the project was going to get off the ground, and in the end, nothing was made. After that, I took a long break from games, and did illustration. I taught some college classes too.
—I did some research about you for this inteview, and one story I read surprised me. It said that, through your time in the game industry, you awoke to the Gaia Hypothesis, and became very involved in environmental problems, and started doing your own farming and living the self-sufficient life of a hermit.
Senba: Ah, yeah… that whole rumor got started when an acquaintance of mine contacted me, and I said "Oh, I'm growing sweet potatoes now." I made a joke, like, "Yup, now I make boring things like potatoes", but apparently he took me seriously. (laughs) Well, I do have a small field I work, so it's not a lie or anything. There's a lot of very uber-serious people like that in the game industry, actually. You know that opening scene in Dino Rex, where the dogu figurine is spinning around?
Senba: That was handmade by one of my female staff members.
—She made it herself?
Senba: When I put it in our office, a new employee saw it and asked me, "What's this…?" I said, "Oh, I got that recently on a trip to South America." He believed me and before I knew it, it rumor had spread throughout the company. The thing is, anyone could take one look at it and tell it was made with clay that you can buy at any local shop. And I hadn't taken a vacation in two years, not for golden week, or the summer, or New Year's.
—Have you paid much attention to the game industry recently?
Senba: I have kids, so I see Playstation games. I feel like games are heading towards a dead end. The game industry is like a child with a mature body, but an undeveloped mind. They think simplistic naive things like "A longer game is better!", despite the fact that when players are still putting hours into a game, they're less likely to go buy a new one. (laughs)
—Gaming underwent a huge shift in the early 90s, but for many of us, I think, it was our encounter with your games, Senba, at just that time, which cemented gaming as a lifelong passion.
Senba: It's only very recently that I've become aware of the fans out there who feel that way. When I was doing manga, it felt like no one was paying attention at all.
—That was before the internet... it's a real shame though, that none of us communicated to you how much we loved Metal Black.
Senba: No one did. (laughs) To most people it was just a "kuso game", and for 10 years, I figured it was all over for Metal Black, that no one cared. I was happy thinking that maybe just one or two people really loved it.
—Still, I'd love for you to make Gun Frontier 3. And people would like to see Metal Black 2.
Senba: I have those feelings too. And occasionally the conversation comes up, but it's never led to anything. It's just bait, I guess. (laughs)
—I hope it gets realized someday. There's a lot of fans of Metal Black in the game industry, so someday, someday...
Senba: That could be a minus in some ways too. Well, finally, let me just clarify one thing. Metal Black isn't about the Gaia Hypothesis. It's more ambiguous, more like… "Gaia…?" And that is depicted in the final backgrounds and the ending. (laughs)
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Additional information not formally covered by Senba/this interview; the dinosaurs in Dino Rex were photographed, digitized and edited from Japanese dinosaur model kits:
* From Senba’s defunct old website; he also had pages for Metal Black and Gun Frontier as well: