Toaplan – 1990 Developer Interview
This interview was originally featured in Gamest, and later republished in the Toaplan STG Chronicle boxset. It is the only interview (to my knowledge) that features Naoki Ogiwara and Koetsu Iwabuchi, the graphic designers responsible for the influential look of games like Tatsujin. I've also included a few pieces of concept art, and a short interview on Toaplan's Mega Drive ports at the end.
Tatsuya Uemura (Program/Sound)
Masahiro Yuge (Program/Sound)
Naoki Ogiwara (Graphics)
Koetsu Iwabuchi (Graphics)
—What was the very first game you made at Toaplan? What was it like back then?
Yuge: I was working with computers back then, but I really wanted to make arcade games, so I joined Toaplan. The first game I made at Toaplan was Performan. At that time we were working out of a single room in a small, cramped apartment.
Uemura: I was friends with Yuge then, and he had his hands full with the programming for Performan, so he asked me to do the sound for it. That was my first experience.
—I heard from a friend that the default names in the score entry for Tiger Heli spell out TOA shi-inj-uku san-cho-ume, your company address.
Uemura: We had just moved from that apartment room to Shinjuku sanchome.
—Why did you keep making STGs after moving?
Yuge: Because we like them. (laughs) Our first hit was Tiger Heli, but then we tried Get Star, which is our single failure to date. That failure probably influenced us, although I really liked Get Star. But I think we wanted to make games that other people would enjoy, so we made more STGs.
—Your next hit after Tiger Heli was Slap Fight.
Uemura: Not many Slap Fight boards were produced in Japan, but players seem to enjoy it. You could play for a long time.
Yuge: For Tiger Heli, we aimed for simplicity, but with Slap Fight our idea was to pack in as much as we could. Personally I really like games with hidden characters and secrets.
—Then came Hishouzame, Kyuukyoku Tiger, and Tatsujin. Tell us a bit about those.
Yuge: When we were making Slap Fight, we already had the basic structure in mind for Hishouzame and Kyuukyoku Tiger. We were trying to pursue the simple thrill of shooting and dodging, so we settled on the shot+bomb system. When you fire that bomb, I think it helps relieve stress. For Tatsujin, at first we were going to try a bunch of different things like in Slap Fight. But we thought if the main selling point was to be the “Tatsujin Laser”, then it was probably best not to jam the game with too many other things.
—Which game has been your biggest hit so far?
Uemura: Kyuukyoku Tiger. It was also very popular outside of Japan. Same! Same! Same! wasn’t that popular in Japan, but it did well overseas. I think the reason it didn’t do well in Japan was that we set the difficulty too high, for the hardcore players.
—Your vertical STGs don’t have endings, but continue to loop indefinitely. Why is that?
Yuge: We do that to extend the life of the game for skilled players. Its said hardcore players spend a long time playing, but they also spend a lot of money on the game to get that good. So it would be unfair and boring for them if the game just ended all of a sudden.
—And when you see good players, you think “I want to do that” too.
—As for graphics, does your design process differ in any special way from other companies?
Ogiwara: One thing that’s different is that we don’t clearly divide up the backgrounds, enemy designs, and other artwork among individual people. Its more like everybody does a little bit of everything, and then we assemble it properly later.
—How do you interact with the planning staff?
Ogiwara: At Toaplan the programmers are the planners, but they don’t give many detailed instructions to us regarding the art. To a certain degree we’re free to draw what we want. Though this lack of communication sometimes causes us to make characters that shouldn’t be there, or put guns and cannons on enemies that will never fire. Then they’re very quick about asking us to fix it. It all might sound kind of disorganized compared with other companies, but its been working for us.
—Iwabuchi, what kind of drawings have you done for the games?
Iwabuchi: Right when I joined, I worked on Get Star. After that I drew for Kyuukyoku Tiger and Hellfire.
—Toaplan’s STGs have a lot of tanks in them, but do you use any reference materials to draw them?
Iwabuchi: I don’t really use anything. Tanks and war stuff is very easy for me to draw. For Hellfire, though, the world of the game wasn’t pre-fixed, so I just let my imagination run wild when I drew.
—At Toaplan, the programmers also compose the music.
Uemura: That’s right. I think its one of our defining features. At first we just didn’t have enough people, and since Yuge and I both could play music we started doing the programming and adding the music ourselves.
—What do you think about when you’re coming up with the music?
Uemura: I don’t think very much about making my music match the atmosphere of the stage. The main thing I focus on is making music that the people playing it will enjoy listening to.
—Then how do you differentiate the songs between stages?
Yuge: We think about the game’s flow as a whole, like if the first stage had such and such a song, then the next stage should have a different atmosphere, and so on. The main thing is that STG music is heard by the player when he’s deeply absorbed in the game, so it should make him feel good, like he’s getting into it.
—And how do you decide if a song fits a stage or not?
Yuge: We ask people to listen to it. But if we just play it in front of them they usually hesitate and won’t say anything, so we watch and listen from the shadows. Then they say how they really feel, and we decide from there. (laughs)
—When I’ve talked with composers from other game companies, they don’t usually say much about the player’s perspective on the music while he’s playing.
Yuge: That’s probably because their stance is of a composer of music, first and foremost.
—Right, and because you do both sound and programming, and you also love STGs as players yourselves, you have a different outlook.
Yuge: Yeah, that might be it.
—Finally, please tell us about your favorite games by other developers, and your future ambitions.
Yuge: I really like Xevious and Star Force, and as you can tell, my favorite games are vertical STGs. When I have to work on other games, a kind of internal pressure builds up in me, and it eventually explodes in the form of a new STG.
Ogiwara: I like Halley’s Comet. I’ve only made vertical STGs so far, so its my favorite genre.
Iwabuchi: I also love STG. But I really liked Get Star… I was disappointed it didn’t do well.
Uemura: I’ve played a lot of Heiankyo Alien and Lode Runner. But I love vertical STG. Horizontal scrolling STG isn’t really my thing. As for the future, I’m happy we’ve been able to support vertical STG, but I’d also like to branch out into other genres.
1990 Toaplan Megadrive Port Interview
originally found at the GSLA
Tomoaki Fujimoto (Management)
Lee Ohta (Development)
Last year, Sega talked to us about porting our game Tatsujin to the Megadrive. We had already been thinking about taking steps to get directly involved with console development. Our games have been ported before, but by others companies; this was the first console game we’ve ported ourselves at Toaplan. This work benefitted from the Megadrive hardware being similar to our PCBs in many ways, and you could feel the enthusiasm from the development staff for the Megadrive.
We started the actual porting in December of last year. We plan to release two Megadrive titles this year, hopefully by the fall. We’d also like to release ports for other genres, not just STG. We want to change the image people have that “Toaplan == STG.”
For the STGs we’re currently developing, we’d like to make something that goes “back to basics.” We don’t want to keep making games where the more you power-up, the more the difficulty increases. If I had to say, our company is now of the mindset that we should lower the difficulty of our games. There will continue to be STGs released that follow the trend of getting harder and harder; we’d like to follow a different path with our STG, and create a new style. As for the practical details, we could spend all day talking about that, but we have various ideas.
One of the main differences between the Megadrive and arcade hardware is the Megadrive’s greatly reduced color palette. The amount of space for the screen to scroll is also smaller, so its hard to give things the right sense of distance and space. It’s just a graphically inferior system. However, there aren’t any particular problems with the sound. As for peripherals, the one we’re most interested for consoles is the CD-ROM2. Naturally we’d like to try developing for something with such a large amount of memory. Personally, I’m also interested in the hardware specs on the Super Famicom, but right now we’re devoting all our energy to the Megadrive.
If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!