Tatsuya Uemura – 2012 Developer Interview
This excellent and long interview with Tatsuya Uemura of legendary arcade developer Toaplan first appeared in STG Gameside #4. Throughout the interview Uemura stresses the significance of Toaplan’s creative freedom compared with the commercial exigencies designers face today. He also states numerous times that Toaplan’s signature style was largely a result of limitations.
—How did you get started in the game industry? You started out at Orca, right?
Uemura: Yes. At the time, the game industry was comprised solely of companies making arcade games for game centers, and game centers were thought of as hangouts for delinquents. So game companies weren’t soliciting applications openly. Originally, I was working at a recording studio, and computers were finally starting to be used in pro studios… I thought this is where things are headed, and if you wanted to work in the new field of computer sound design, it had to be a game company.
—And Orca went bankrupt soon after you joined?
Uemura: Technically, it was already bankrupt when I started. At that time we took up almost half of the 7th floor of the NS building in Shinjuku, and it felt really high tech. I thought I had joined a really strong company, but about a week into my training, our company name had disappeared from the elevator hall. “Huh?” I thought, but none of the other employees said anything to me about it. It was Kenichi Takano, a new hire like me who now works at Cave, who told me “Looks like Orca’s finished.” (laughs)
—An awfully stormy start! (laughs) Were you involved in any games with Orca at the time?
Uemura: Takano was working on “Vastar,” but all the other new hires were working on a game called “Taichi” as part of our training. The development was continued by us at Crux, and there was even a location test for it, but it never was released. At the same time Gyrodine was being developed by people across from us. Then, in the middle of developing Repulse, Crux went bankrupt, and some of the people working at Crux ended up forming the software division of Toaplan. I was invited too, and ended up joining after Repulse was finished.
—”Gyrodine” is also a helicopter game. Is there any connection with Tiger Heli?
Uemura: Ah… as regards the members who worked on each game, no, not particularly. But because a helicopter is a slower craft than other planes, and it can hover in midair, we felt it really suited a shooting game where the screen was scrolling. In turn, I think that idea influenced us at Toaplan a bit.
—I see, because a helicopter can quietly stop in midair and even move backwards, it wouldn’t feel out of place in a forced scrolling game. It also seems like an element of Toaplan’s tendency for realism.
Uemura: Yeah, it seemed like our non sci-fi games with a realistic setting were received particularly well overseas.
—Did you pay much attention to games being produced overseas at the time?
Uemura: We couldn’t ignore them, but as developers we focused more on games in Japan. The players in Japan and the players overseas had completely different ways of playing, and what they looked for in games was different as well. So if something was first produced in the west, it felt like it had been made particularly for the expectations of that audience.
—Sci-fi shooting games were popular in Japan at the time, but were you trying to distinguish yourself from that?
Uemura: Not intentionally, no. Unlike now, back then we didn’t do things like market research, and we didn’t really try to appeal to what fans wanted. It was a good time. (laughs)
—Toaplan started out as a division of the “Toa Kikaku”1 company, correct?
Uemura: That’s how it was. The main people were Kenichi Takano, Toshiaki Oota from Tamsoft, and Yuichirou Nozawa. Masahiro Yuge had gone to another company, but I think someone asked him to come back and he did.
—Toaplan’s early works were all published by Taito; was that something carried over from “Gyrodine?” I believe Toaplan and Taito’s first project together was Tiger Heli.
Uemura: That’s right. We were often seen as Taito’s subcontractor, but the games were all Toaplan’s original work which we would then take to Taito and ask them to distribute. Toaplan was purely a development company so didn’t have any sales division, and our relationship with Taito had been good ever since Gyrodine. We never made a game because they asked us to make it a certain way. Well, actually, Taito America would give us ideas about the overseas market which we made use of. Also, Daisenpu was the one game that Taito asked us to develop.
—Was “Performan” your debut as a sound programmer?
Uemura: Yes. I was working on Repulse when I was asked to write the music for Performan. However, just when everything was nearly finished, I had a motorcycle accident, and though the songs were written I couldn’t do the data programming for them. I recall Masahiro Yuge did that for me.
—Were there a lot of people who rode motorcycles at Toaplan, by the way?
Uemura: Ah, I don’t think there were that many. Though Masahiro Yuge also rode one.
—I’ve heard that Toaplan had a lot of employees at the time who loved games and became programmers specifically because they wanted to make games.
Uemura: That was something we became known for later. We didn’t have anyone like that during my time. In those early Toaplan days it was the kind of company where someone was needing bandages almost everyday. (laughs)
—It sounds like some wild young men’s athletic club.
Uemura: It was like that. And I was always the one who had to stop it. (laughs) That kind of vigor had probably been there since Orca.
—I think the bomb system in Tiger Heli conveys that vigor as well.
Uemura: That’s right (laughs).
—You mean the bombs weren’t designed to balance the game, that is, to help beginners in a tight spot, or to be saved up for score at the end of a stage?
Uemura: No, we didn’t plan for them to be used as safety measures like that.
—You weren’t concerned with game balance, but you just wanted that feeling of seeing something go BAM and explode?
Uemura: Yeah, that’s what we were enthused about. Our thinking at first was that bombs were to be used aggressively for attack, but in the end skilled players wouldn’t use them. You could say they ended up having a different value than we had conceived. They’d clear the stage without using a bomb for score, or never use bombs for the achievement of it.
—A new interpretation different from your original intentions had been created.
Uemura: You could say that. People started using them only as an emergency, and it became customary to see how far you could get get without bombing.
—While you had a tendency for realism, you were always pursuing that feeling of exhiliration in your games.
Uemura: That always came first. At the time we used the word “reckless”2 a lot.
—After joining Toaplan your programming skills improved a lot, didn’t they?
Uemura: Well, that was my main job (laughs). When a game is planned and they ask you to make it, almost all the work is programming.
—But at Toaplan the programmers had to do all the sound design as well, right?
Uemura: Toaplan as a company didn’t really put much emphasis on sound design, so it felt like something we had to do in our spare time. (laughs) We were working on older hardware than other companies, and from a cost perspective sound was an afterthought.
—I’m shocked to hear that (laughs). It was you and Masahiro Yuge who created the “Toaplan style.”3
Uemura: That was really just because we didn’t have enough people to work on the games besides the two of us. (laughs) Once a game was finished it was time to start creating something new, and since the two of us were there, it just got split up that way.
—Was it because you were both programmer and composer that the music and sound were synced up as they were?
Uemura: No… there were times when Yuge would be conscious of the music while creating the stages, but I was just thinking of the scenario in the game generally when I wrote music. I’d find a good groove, or a melody that was rousing and go from there. You’d hear the same song so many times, you kind of got brainwashed and started to think it really fit (laughs). And our games were using checkpoint systems, so you’d hear the same part over and over. (laughs)
—The songs you remember are always the ones where you die a lot (laughs).
Uemura: Yeah, and the loops were short so they would get stuck in your head. And personally, I was always trying to write catchy melodies. As a result the brainwashing effect was particularly strong (laughs).
—After Tiger Heli you continued doing vertical shooting games with Hishouzame and Kyuukyoku Tiger.
Uemura: For a long time people thought they were a series, but it wasn’t really designed like that. Though each were vertical shooting games, and the bombs evolved from each game.
—You didn’t respond to the fans’ ideas when you made them?
Uemura: It might be too much to say this, but we didn’t place too much importance on that. We’d receive letters and such, but we really didn’t know whether a particular letter represented the core players, or whether many people felt that way. We were careful not to be led astray like that.
—You say that, but it does feel like the longer invincibility period when using the bomb in Kyuukyoku Tiger was a reponse to players.
Uemura: In order to make the games more and more exciting and wild, we had to start inflating the weapons as well. I think that did create a more “user friendly” game, but to keep the game balance we also had to make the enemies tougher.
—On the one hand powerups got more spectacular, but you also introduced things like the yellow “penalty” four-way shot item in Kyuukyoku Tiger; was that intentional?
Uemura: No, I think there was a way to use that shot to help shoot behind you. Though people ended up saying it was a penalty item, and that we had made it appear right after the most useful blue spread shot item on purpose (laughs). That wasn’t the case, but it ended up being part of the game’s style.
—At that time were there any games from other companies that you were influenced by? I wondered if you weren’t thinking of the penalty item from Makaimura there…
Uemura: That wasn’t the case. People would also often say that we purposely programmed power-ups to move away from the players, but we didn’t do that intentionally. (laughs)
—Kyuukyoku Tiger was ported to many different systems. Was much importance placed on these console ports?
Uemura: The console ports weren’t a part of Toaplan’s business plan and weren’t focused on at all. First off, the special allure we were aiming for in a shooting game couldn’t be achieved without the arcade hardware. Also, since we were focused on the arcade hardware, we couldn’t learn to program for different systems. So the only ports we did in-house were for the Megadrive, which used the same 68000 hardware.
—So that’s why you had so many Megadrive ports.
Uemura: Yes. And even with Tatsujin, we had to put a vertical game on a horizontal screen, which meant that we had to just cut off parts of the top and bottom. Basically we didn’t know what we were doing, technically speaking. Now I can say that (bitter laughter). But we really felt like we weren’t able to give players the proper experience of our games with the console ports and their “fake tate” mode.
—The first Toaplan game I got into was the Megadrive port of Tatsujin. The difficulty level of the arcade version seemed very high to me.
Uemura: The games turned out to be quite difficult, but we didn’t deisgn them with the intention of “Hah, see if you can clear THIS!” The foundation of our design was to make a game that wasn’t overly complex, that anyone could clear… I always thought of it as a genre that even a busy salaryman could just pick up and enjoy. Though gradually everything started to be made more and more difficult for the hardcore players (laughs). In the end we sort of hung ourselves with our own rope.
—Is that why the difficulty was lowered a bit for the console ports?
Uemura: …was it lowered? Though we did feel that the basic stance for arcade games was different, so that when a customer bought the game for home use they should get their full enjoyment out of it.
—Until then you had only done vertical games, but with Hellfire you finally tried a horizontal shooter.
Uemura: We had been told to make a game like the popular Gradius series. Though I hate horis. (laughs) Zero Wing was based on the Hellfire engine and was made by new recruits as part of their training, but we stopped doing horis after that. I think we realized we just didn’t know how to make a horizontal shooter interesting. Later we were told by many users that they really liked Zero Wing, but to be honest, I don’t know what they liked about it.
—Well with Hellfire, I think changing the shot direction gave it a strong puzzle feeling.
Uemura: Personally, I’d say the puzzle aspect of vertical shooters has always been more important for me than typical feeling of exhiliration and action. I would design my games so the player had to strategize (laughs).
—You made it a point to always have a high degree of strategy in your games?
Uemura: Well, it was all about the recovery patterns and checkpoint system. I think the term “memorizer” is used today somewhat negatively, but I emphasized it and wanted players to do well by playing through and discovering all the strategic patterns. Like situations where your ship would be at full power, but then you’d die and have to figure out the correct recovery pattern despite your ship being at the lowest power. We designed it so recovery like that would be possible. We had that in mind for Hishouzame and Kyuukyoku Tiger in particular.
—Tatsujin was also extremely hard at the beginning, but if you memorized all the patterns then even someone without good reflexes could clear it.
Uemura: Yeah. I don’t think anyone needed good reflexes to clear our games. Later Psikyo would put out games that really test people’s reflexes, but that isn’t vertical shooting to me (laughs).
—Psikyo’s bullet patterns are tough. (laughs) It sounds like you were aiming for games that anyone could clear given enough practice.
Uemura: Yeah. That was the most important thing.
—We were talking about Hellfire a moment ago, but in the PC Engine opening there’s this memorable, eye-opening scene with a naked woman wrapped in bedsheets lying on a bed. Was that something you had wanted to do in the arcade version but were only able to realize on the console port?
Uemura: No, we had nothing to do with that! I think that was NEC Avenue’s pet project. The first time we saw it was after it had been released. We were all shocked when we saw it, but no one objected either (laughs).
—They hadn’t told you about it beforehand?
Uemura: No one told us anything (laughs).
—With Toaplan’s games, you can feel a certain experimentation towards making the games less difficult for people who thought they were too hard. Outzone is easier, and I think a lot of people came to love Toaplan through that game.
Uemura: Outzone doesn’t have forced scrolling, so it didn’t require the kind of special skills you need in a normal vertical scrolling game. In that regard I think we achieved an easier game. Actually, we wanted to make our vertical shooters easier too, so we’d initially make them quite easy for our location tests, but then someone would 1cc them in one day and we’d end up dramatically raising the difficulty level.
—In game centers, where every game was fiercely competing for a players time, were you trying to make your games simple and flashy to get their attention?
Uemura: Yes, that was one of our primary conditions when designing a game. The only thing that would get a player to put a coin in was the attract mode, so we did our best to make those interesting.
—Like in the final scene of the attract mode for Dogyuun!, where this giant robot appears.
Uemura: Originally we had planned to make a game with that giant robot as the main character. We wanted players to experience the thrill of destroying everything in a giant robot, but it didn’t work at all as a game when we tried it. We didn’t want all our work to be wasted so we thought we’d put it in that final scene at least (laughs).
—So the robot in the opening scene was a remnant of that attempt?
Uemura: Yeah. Though not many people have made it to the final part of the game, so ever since then we’ve had people asking us “What’s with that robot in the opening?” (laughs)
—Its a shame that the later stages aren’t well known because Toaplan’s games were difficult.
Uemura: Well, if a player died in the first half of the game, but during that time were able to enjoy it in their own way, then I think the game was a success. What we hated the most and tried to avoid, though, was when a player would have no idea what killed them and walk away thinking “this is impossible!!”
—As the market for STG shrank, fighting games started to be more popular.
Uemura: When the company told us to make a fighting game, we tried making one and created Knuckle Bash. I wasn’t involved personally, but we had no idea what we were doing. (laughs) I thought we had better stop. (laughs)
—The appeal of the later Toaplan shooters is quite different from the early ones. And that’s because Toaplan started to be composed mostly of young people who joined the company because they liked Toaplan’s previous games, right?
Uemura: Yeah… people who were good at shooting games and wanted to make their own, like Tsuneki Ikeda of Cave.
—Did the young programmers have preset ideas about how a shooting game should be?
Uemura: Hmmm… well, when you look at Batsugun, its really totally different from the games we were making earlier. With the number of bullets, Kyuukyoku Tiger really didn’t have that many. But a feature of “danmaku” games is the way there are many bullets which aren’t aimed directly at the player’s ship, filling the screen in a beautiful way.
—In Kyuukyoku Tiger, when you got close to a ground enemy they wouldn’t fire at you. I feel that Toaplan’s games had a lot of unstated rules like that.
Uemura: That was because we wanted as much as possible to avoid the situation where the player didn’t know what killed him.
—That sense of fairness was good, like you had some consideration for beginners and salarymen stopping to play on their way home from work.
Uemura: We did, definitely. We didn’t make games just to frustrate people.
—Finally, looking back on your experiences, what kind of company would you say Toaplan was?
Uemura: Since it was a development company from the start, we were able to make the games we wanted. In that sense it was incredibly fun. Though it might be why we went bankrupt… And as an organization, I don’t think there was anyone who hated coming to work. The relationship between junior and senior employees was also great. There was no one who didn’t want to go on drinking parties or company trips. There was a sense of harmony and it was a really pleasant environment. Its really a shame it had to end. At a typical company your stress just builds and builds (laughs), and you feel like everyone is just looking out for themselves.
Part II: UEMURA AS MUSICIAN, THEN AND NOW
—Many of your compositions have a strong rock influence. What are some of your musical influences?
Uemura: German and European hard rock, Yojouhan Folk,4 and Japanese pop music from the 60s and 70s. I think I’ve always focused on sad, melancholic melodies, and that has been a central part of all my songs in game music as well.
—In your later work I think we also see the influence of disco; where does that come from?
Uemura: I also like eurobeat. Though I say “eurobeat”, what that means today is very different from what it used to mean, when it was somewhat melancholy melodies over a disco beat, a combination I really liked. As for game music, its the kind of thing that loops a lot, so in that respect its similar to the feel of disco. And if you add a sad melody on top of that, you get a vaguely european sound I think.
—When did you first start composing?
Uemura: I wrote a little bit on accoustic guitar in the Yojuuhan style when I was in high school. But I never showed that to anyone. The first time I wrote music with the intention of sharing it with others was in the game industry.
—Have you continued doing music since Toaplan?
Uemura: After Toaplan, when I was working at Gazelle, I did some arrangements of Kyuukyoku Tiger for the PS1 release of “Toaplan Shooting Battle #1.” I also did a remix of Ibara on the “The LUNATIC Ibara” superplay disc. Those are the only two things though. I always have the desire to write music as a hobby, and I’ve bought different music software and such, but I end up having no time to use them. “Vocaloid Hatsune Miku 2″ recently came out and I bought it right away, but I haven’t even taken it out of the box yet. (laughs) I’ve been asked to play guitar in a band and have thought about doing that again if I have the chance… though I have no idea if I could do it or not!
—Before Toaplan, you were hired by Orca as a sound designer, so why did you end up working as a programmer?
Uemura: After I was hired they trained me as a programmer, and my training had nothing to do with sound. From the beginning, Orca never put much effort into their sound, and to this day I still have no idea why they were hiring for a sound designer.
—What was the first project you did sound for?
Uemura: Taichi, the training project for new hires. It was really a trial and error kind of thing. At the time the PSG sound chip could only play three notes simultaneously, so one channel would be reserved for sound effects, and the other two would carry the melody. Then you had a noise channel. At the time no one had used it to make a snare drum type sound yet, and when I did it in Taichi I was very proud and thought “I’m the first!”, but in the end the game didn’t get released.
—Your next work was Repulse. I feel this is a work that already begins to show your particular style.
Uemura: Yeah, the main tune there has a triplet note boogie ryhthm, though I have no memory of writing those sounds. Sound effects were never really my forte either, and I remember just haphazardly going through notes until I found something I liked.
The first music I did that was actually recognizable as music was Performan, but as it was just an 8 note looping melody, I couldn’t really boast that I had written music. (laughs)
—When would you say was the first time you could say that, then?
Uemura: After FM had come out… which would be Hishouzame, I believe. Though even then, with the “2 Ope” FM system, it was still very hard to make anything. I was always trying to make my songs sound like a full rock band, and it was a real struggle with the sounds being so poor.
—Though you were a guitarist as a youth, you composed your music on keyboard or by humming out the melodies. Why is that?
Uemura: In rock guitar you can do a palm mute, and without that, the particular feel of rock just doesn’t come through. At the time game hardware couldn’t simulate that effect, so from the start I gave up on composing with guitar.
—In Toaplan’s early days, with Tiger Heli, Hishouzame, and Kyuukyoku Tiger, you collaborated with Masahiro Yuge. It seems to me that the songs came out so well because they blend your personality as a melody writer and Yuge’s expertise in software coding.
Uemura: Well, you say that, but each of the projects we did were handled differently, so I’m not really sure about that.
—For listeners, I don’t think there was ever a time where your two styles seemed to clash. How did you divide up the work on projects you collaborated on?
Uemura: I don’t think we were especially conscious of any particular method. But Yuge would create all the sound drivers, and he was the most senior sound engineer at Toaplan, so in that sense he called the shots. Following his lead, I would then write a number of songs for variation… that was the basic workflow.
—Its often said that the “Toaplan sound” comes from the basslines, but in actuality, most of your compositions use one note and octave basslines, and are rather simple.
Uemura: We definitely used octave basslines a lot. So if someone told me that was the Toaplan sound, I’d probably have to agree, but considering that other game music composers were using that technique at the time, whenever someone says that I sort of think “not really.” In my case, it was simply the case that when the FM sound quality was rather poor, in order to cover a wide octave range with one channel I tried using an octave bassline and it sounded really good, and after that I just continued doing it for a long time.
—How did it feel when “Kyuukyoku Tiger G.S.M. TAITO 2” went on sale? It was the first time your music had been released on cd.
Uemura: I was very happy. I had never really had any aspirations as a sound engineer, but to have my name known as as a composer or performer was something I had never even dreamed of.
—After that more Toaplan soundtracks were steadily released, and I think the fans of Toaplan’s game music definitely increased as well. A lot of companies at the time were forming bands and performing their music, but you guys never made any plans like that?
Uemura: We did, we did. Everyone was saying they wanted to, but I guess we never found the time, or no one really took the reins and organized it, so it never came to fruition. If it were possible I’d still like to do something even now, though.
—Speaking of which, were you influenced by the music of any other game companies?
Uemura: A couple examples would be Konami and Sega. We all thought the quality of Konami’s music was so high that we’d never be able to catch up, and personally I really loved Sega’s fusion style. But it wasn’t the case that we therefore tried to make Toaplan sound like them. It would sure sound cool if I told you something like “we had to walk our own path,” but the truth is, we just weren’t capable of doing anything else. (laughs)
—In terms of using new FM and PCM hardware, Toaplan was always one step behind other companies. I imagine that was quite frustrating?
Uemura: There were times when we were going for a rock band sound but couldn’t achieve it, and we wanted the sound quality to be improved. But the company felt that such things didn’t matter (laughs). Compared to the game itself, the profits from even a popular cd were pretty small, and they didn’t know how many we’d actually sell, too.
—FM sound is difficult to work with, but did you end up becoming comfortable with it?
Uemura: No, everything was the result of trial and error for me. To the end I never felt like I had mastered the tricks of creating sounds and textures. I never went beyond the level of just experimenting with different sounds until I would find something interesting.
—I do feel that there are many “sharp” sounds in your music, though.
Uemura: That was intentional. If we didn’t do that, our music wouldn’t be heard above the noise in a game center.
—I think the sequencing in many of your songs is simple, too, but was that due to difficulties with the software?
Uemura: No, that wasn’t the case. I think the sound software was technically quite capable of more complex sequencing. Of course, it wasn’t like that in the beginning for us, but I simply think whether advanced technical features are used or not comes down to the individual composer. Things like the typical FM vibrato and such, we didn’t use all that much at Toaplan.
—It was often the case that your music would be further developed for the console ports. For example, in the megadrive port of Zero Wing, Noriyuki Iwadare remixed the music to give it a stronger band feeling, and in Slap Fight, Yuzo Koshiro added songs he personally composed. How were you involved in the music for the ports?
Uemura: The ports we did in-house at Toaplan I oversaw completely, but with the ones we licensed out, it was pretty much “do what you like.”
—I think Toaplan’s style of music, which could be called “headstrong gallantry”,5 had a large influence on the music of later shooting games.
Uemura: Really? If I listen to Konami or Sega’s music outside of the game, I still really enjoy it, but when I hear the music I wrote apart from the game, it sounds really lonely, cheap, and embarassing. From a technical standpoint I think we definitely weren’t on a very high level, and I personally can’t believe how many fans we still have, and how passionate they are about the music. When you said “headstrong,” again I think that was because we just weren’t capable of writing any other way.
—I think that’s because people come to know and love the game’s music when they first hear it with the game. Well, finally, do you have any message for the generation of fans who grew up with your music?
Uemura: Because I was able to write my music to my own tastes, it ended up being recognized and enjoyed by many people. Today there are a lot of walls for composers and its difficult to write with such freedom, but if you don’t follow your own heart when writing music, even if you write something that becomes a big hit, it will be difficult to feel the pride and accomplishment that comes along with saying “this is my music.” So my hope is for composers today to also do what they think personally sounds good and follow their own style.
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“East Asian Projects”↩
the japanese word is “gamushara” which has no exact english equivalent, but is meant to convey a feeling of rushing headlong into action without premeditation.↩
Among Japanese fans “Toa Setsu” refers to the style of shooting game popularized by Toaplan and carried on by Cave, particularly with Donpachi/Dodonpachi. In addition to Toaplan’s distinct musical style, it also refers to the art and game features.↩
Yojouhan Folk is a musical style from the 70s that apparently features the love lives of poor people, rather than protest songs oft associated with folk from that time.↩
The term used to describe the Toaplan style by the interviewer is “ippongi isamashisa”. The latter word translates nicely to courage / vigor / gallantry, but the first word “ippongi” is more difficult; it basically implies rushing straight ahead, acting without thinking. I could have translated it any number of ways without it sounding perfect, but hopefully that makes sense.↩