Thunder Force III – Developer Interviews

Thunder Force III – Developer Interviews

This interview with Technosoft alumni Naosuke Arai is excerpted from a longer feature at Famitsu discussing the release of the 3DS Thunder Force III remaster. I’ve also appended two smaller pieces: an interview from 1989 with Technosoft Founder and President Tomio Ozono about their foray into Megadrive development, and a memorial by Arai for Ozono, who passed away in 2014.

Yousuke Okunari – Producer
Naoki Horii – M2 President

Naosuke Arai – Sound Editor / Composer / Director (TFV)

—I’d like to take this opportunity now to ask some questions about what things were like back in the days you were developing the Thunder Force series. What was it like at Technosoft then, during that transition from X68000 to Megadrive development?

Arai: The X68000 shares the same CPU and FM sound chip as the Megadrive, so our President at the time, Tomio Ozono, figured it would be a technologically smooth transition. However, when I look back on it now, it seems like a pretty bold decision!

Okunari: Right. Up to then Technosoft had only been making PC games, but with the Megadrive port of Thunder Force II, they completely switched over to the console market.

Arai: The fact that Thunder Force II was a big hit and Megadrive players were very impressed with it was a big thing for us then. Back then there was no internet, and the only feedback you got came from magazine reviews and comment and questionnaire postcards that players would send us. Naturally, we all read over those postcards, but I remember that after Thunder Force II, the number of cards we received shot up by an order of magnitude.

Veteran Technosoft alumni Naosuke Arai, then and now.

—Unlike the port of TFII, Thunder Force III was designed specifically for the Megadrive console. What led up to its creation?

Arai: Well, I should say that each person at Technosoft had their own opinion about this, but after Thunder Force II, many of us felt like we hadn’t fully tapped the potential of the Megadrive hardware, and that there were a lot of things we could have done better. Besides that, though, the truth is that we had always wanted to make a STG like this, and Thunder Force III was the vessel into which we poured all those feelings. There were also business concerns: we wanted to capitalize on the knowledge we had gained in porting TFII, and quickly bring a new title to market.

—I would have expected Thunder Force III to include more of the arcade STG tropes popular back then: a high-speed scrolling stage, fighting a massive battleship, etc. Does their absence perhaps indicate an antagonism towards arcade games from the planning staff?

Arai: Actually, Thunder Force III didn’t have a designated planner. Instead, the programmers and designers made those decisions organically, talking things through as they came up: “oh, let’s do this” or “this would be better here.” Most of the developers were already STG fans, so they were able to rely on their intuitions.

—Thunder Force III also attracted attention for the technological feat of the raster scroll flame effect on stage Hydra.

Arai: I think seeing Gradius playable on the X68000 was a big influence on us as developers. Here was a PC that could play arcade-quality games—and it was a development machine, too! Because of that foundation we had in developing Thunder Force II on the X68000, I think we were able to quickly get a handle on the Megadrive. Ultimately it’s all about experience, right? We were able to make something good because of all the knowhow we’d accumulated.

Okunari: And with regard for the music you made for those games—Technosoft used the exact same hardware as other companies, yet the quality of your music was a cut above other Megadrive games at the time, with clear, deep, punchy FM.

Arai: Back then I was working on sound effects while also creating the sound driver and editor tools.

Horii: Back in 1988, despite the fact that the Megadrive had a more powerful OPN2 chip (the YM2612) for FM synthesis, most developers were using it for cheap music that sounded more like the older OPLL. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only a little. (laughs) But Thunder Force II MD was completely different.

Arai: The YM2612 chip on the Megadrive was the same chip as the YM2608 used in the late-model PC-88 series, and the music programming on the Megadrive was also done in z80 assembly. So again, we were really able to capitalize on our previous experience developing games on the PC-88.

Thunder Force OST. The opening music to Thunder Force III is one of the few in the series directly attributed to Yunker Matai, aka Naosuke Arai. Considering his direct credits for sound effects, though, it’s likely that he played a part in the overall sound design / sound programming.

—It was common practice back then for companies to not reveal the names of the actual developers, so we often don’t know exactly who did what. Were all the Thunder Force games developed with the same staff members?

Arai: Now that time has passed, I can talk about it, but yeah, TFII and TFIII had the same staff, but IV was made with an entirely different group (excluding the sound). For that reason, and because the staff really felt that they needed to surpass the achievements of the previous Thunder Force games, TFIV took a long time to complete.

Horii: I’ve heard before that TFIV had a lot of new staff members. Did they re-use a lot of the previous code, though?

Arai: A lot of the basic code was re-used. Before TFIV, that team had cut their teeth on the Devil Crush MD port, which upped their skills, and when the time came for them to choose an original project to work on, they chose Thunder Force IV.

There was a similar infusion of new members for the Thunder Force V team, by the way. They gained experience making Blast Wind and Hyper Duel before moving on to Thunder Force V.

—This is a bit of trivia, but I’ve always wanted to know: who did the female voice for the ship operator in TFIII and TFIV?

Arai: We had this company PR thing then, an idol group called “Technosoft Gal’s Club”. (laughs) The voice was done by one of them.

—Thank you. (laughs) By the way, what was your reaction on seeing Thunder Force III revived for the modern age in 3D?

Arai: Well, I haven’t played it too much myself yet, but seeing it rendered on the 3DS, using that hardware’s special stereoscopic 3D, it felt like more than a mere port to me—more like a whole new game. One of the things we focused on in the Thunder Force III development was a sense of depth in the backgrounds, which we achieved via many layers of parallax scrolling, and I felt that if any system was going to do justice to that, it would be the 3DS. Also, the Thunder Force series was something of a technical achievement for us, a result of pushing the hardware as far as we could, so I’m very happy to see it revived on a new system that also utilizes new technology.

One big shock for me though was how bad I’ve gotten… I could clear this game back then! Maybe it’s partly because I’m not used to the 3DS, but I really suck now. (laughs)

The “Technosoft Gal’s Club” in all their glory.

—Now that Sega has acquired the rights to Technosoft’s library, what would you like to see them do with it in the future?

Arai: I said this on stage earlier, but the Thunder Force series used the newest technology and hardware for its time. We were trying to make players say “whoa!” I’d love to make a new Thunder Force that continues in that same tradition. I think the new VR technology would be perfect for this, and it’s a challenge I’d love to undertake. I think Sega is the perfect company to do that, too. It would be cool to make a new Herzog Zwei game where you had more freedom to oversee the map and your whole environment.

—What does the Thunder Force series mean to you, Arai?

Arai: It marked the dawn of a new era for Technosoft, and it remains our most widely ported series today—it really bridges several generations of video gaming. When I think back on it, I can still see the faces of all the developers I worked with at Technosoft. I gained so much experience working on the Thunder Force games, so it has a special personal significance for me, too. It supported the company financially, but its value is so much more than that.

Thunder Force II MD – 1989 Developer Interview

originally featured in BEEP! Megadrive

—Of the new third-party Megadrive developers, you were the quickest to release a game. When did you first think about getting into Megadrive development?

Ozono: We announced our entry into Megadrive development at the PC Game Developer Association conference last December, but we had been thinking about getting involved in console development for awhile before that. We were particularly interested in the Megadrive, which shares the same CPU as the X68000.

—Has it turned out to be a profitable move for Technosoft?

Ozono: The potential sales volume of Megadrive games vastly exceeds the PC games market, and while the price of an individual Megadrive game is lower, the volume made up for it.

—How has the reaction been to Thunder Force II MD so far?

Ozono: Very favorable. Many people have told us that the graphics and music are better than any Megadrive game on the market today. With the music, especially, we’ve had people tell us they liked it so much they bought the OST to listen to it more.

Toshio Ozono, former President of Technosoft.

—Was there anything particular you paid attention to in porting TFII from the X68000 to the Megadrive?

Ozono: The X68000 version of Thunder Force II was a very difficult game, so we aimed to make the Megadrive port a little easier, a little more balanced overall. Graphically, we tried to utilize the special capabilities of the Megadrive to their fullest. However, being a port of an X68000 game, fitting all that volume into the size of a Megadrive cart was very challenging.

—Thunder Force II MD is a STG, but do you plan to make STG game development your primary focus?

Ozono: Sega has talked to us about making a sequel to Thunder Force II MD. However, if we only continue to put out Thunder Force games, I’m worried that people will see us as a company that only makes STGs, so our second Megadrive game is going to be an RTS (real-time strategy) called Herzog Zwei, and it should be out by the end of the year. We’ve long wanted to make a deep, tactical RTS at Technosoft.

—Have you thought about making games for the Megadrive modem, CD-ROM, or other peripherals?

Ozono: Sega asked us if we could include modem support for Herzog Zwei, but it would require a lot of data to be exchanged in real-time, so that’s something we’ll save for a future game.

—What are your thoughts on the Super Famicom?

Ozono: We’re interested in it. But of the video game consoles out today, the Megadrive has the highest specs and a 68000 CPU, so it was a no-brainer for us. The Super Famicom is still a ways off, but we are thinking seriously about it.

—Please give a final message for our readers.

Ozono: At Technosoft, we’re committed to making new Megadrive games that realize the fullest potential of the hardware. From gameplay to graphics and sound, on all fronts we aim to create works of excellence. We intend to support the Thunder Force series in the future. The Technosoft name is still fairly unknown among gamers, though, so if you don’t own Thunder Force II MD yet, be sure to try it at a friend’s house!

The orderly offices of Technosoft circa 1989.
Memorial to Tomio Ozono, Technosoft President

written by Naosuke Arai in 2014

I first met Ozono in the winter of my second year of high school, 35 years ago. Ozono had opened the first PC shop in town, housed in the rear of the Sasebo Jeweler building.

They had the newest 8-bit computers on display, like the PC-8001 and MZ80K, and he would let us use them freely. I was one of the many students who would linger in the store on the weekends, writing code in BASIC and assembly and making our own games. In the following year, I asked my parents to buy me my own PC as a celebration of my entrance into college. Even today, I can remember clearly how Ozono kindly helped me add and setup peripherals to that computer.

I soon began working for Ozono part-time as a student, and while there were gaps here and there, for the next 19 years until their dissolution in 1999, my life and career were intertwined with Technosoft.

In the interim, Technosoft experienced all the highs and lows of a video game developer in the 80s and 90s. There were trips overseas, but there were also years of recession when no one got a bonus. There were times when we’d hire a bunch of new employees all at once, and times when, out-of-the-blue, a mass of people would quit.

In the midst of all that tumult, the one constant was Ozono and his insistence on making good, quality games. He was a highly-capable perfectionist who never just said “it’s good enough” or let mediocre work suffice. Because of that, he sometimes was at odds with his employees, and perhaps because of his own shyness, he was not always the best at expressing his gratitude, which I think led to many misunderstandings.

However, in times of both feast and famine, Ozono bore the responsibility of many individuals’ livelihoods, and I have come to understand now more than ever the weight of that lonely burden. And I am sure that others have had the same realization.

Technosoft was a mountain of first experiences for me. Through them, I got to sell computers at a store, put together PCBs that we then shipped through the mail, create a catalog, develop game software as a programmer, do user support, compose game music…

They weren’t a big company, so you did whatever you could do and helped out where ever you could. That being the case, it always felt like more than a simple software house; we developed our games with a strong consciousness of what the end user desired because we were closer to them to begin with. When I think back on that time now, all those experiences feel incalculably precious to me. Technosoft no longer exists today, but for all the staff that once worked under Ozono, I am certain they feel similarly.

My one regret is that I was never able to say all this to Ozono while he was in good health, but I will never forget the feeling of gratitude I have toward him. Ozono, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Rest in peace.

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