Yoshio Sakamoto – 2000 Developer Interview
Taken from Nice Games' Game Boy Navigator tankobon, this interview with veteran Nintendo designer/director/producer Yoshio Sakamoto offers a brief overview of several of his early works, with a particular focus on Japan-only titles like Famicom Detective Club and Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru (The Frog For Whom the Bell Tolls), as well as an extended discussion about his then-new Game Boy CCG, Trade & Battle: Card Hero.
Yoshio Sakamoto - Director/Game Designer/Producer
—Sakamoto-san, could you start by telling us how you entered the game industry?
Sakamoto: I graduated from the design department of the Osaka University of Arts, and Nintendo was recruiting designers—at that time, Nintendo was producing and selling the Game & Watch, and they needed people who could draw.
Those in the design department typically go on to become designers for ad agencies or big manufacturers, but I wasn't especially fixated on the idea of becoming a graphic designer (laughs). When I saw the job opening from Nintendo, I was like, "whoa"... as it happens, I loved Nintendo as a kid. My image of Nintendo was unlike that of other toy companies like Bandai or Epoch, and more like "a company that makes unpredictable, vaguely science-y gizmos" (laughs). That said, that was during my childhood, and my interested shifted as I got older.
When I was looking for work, I happened to see the name Nintendo and thought, "ah, I guess they're working on some weird science-y stuff" (laugh), and that's when I applied.
—What sorts of games were you working on after you joined the company?
Sakamoto: I want to say the first product I drew was a Game & Watch, the multi-screen Donkey Kong. I drew the barrel and the crane (laughs). As silly as it may seem, I consider that barrel and crane as my first steps into being a working adult. (laughs)
After that, I drew images for various Game & Watch devices and came up with my own ideas. I think Snoopy was close to what one might consider my first "real" work, as it was the first time I was tasked with thinking about the mechanics of the game and figuring out how to realize them. It might seem simple in hindsight, but it was a big deal for me.
—From there, how did you become involved in making video games?
Sakamoto: At that time, one of the other departments was working on the arcade game Donkey Kong Jr., and (Shigeru) Miyamoto was in charge of drawing the pixel art, but he had his hands full, and when he asked if anyone would be able to help him out, I happened to be available. I was there that I learned how to draw pixel art, and from then on I gradually began making video games.
—What kind of games did you work on?
Sakamoto: This process might be unique to our department but, at the beginning of a project, (Gunpei) Yokoi-san would hold a meeting to decide on the contents of the game, and once a basic direction had been established, he'd say "okay, now take care of the rest" (laughs). Based on that meeting, the programmers, designers and other members would all figure out the contents of the game as they went.
At that time, the common pattern was that other staffers were working on games like Metroid on their own in the beginning and then, as the game transitioned into the latter stages of development, everyone would join in to tie the game together. At that point, I was in charge of drawing graphics and unifying and organizing the game itself; we were all trying to figure out how to best capture that underground atmosphere, or more specifically, the feeling of subterranean exploration. After that, Kid Icarus was being made with a different company, and I worked on that game in the same manner.
—So, you weren't involved with those games from the outset?
Sakamoto: Right. For those two games, I joined around the middle of development and did what I could to bring them together. Gradually, I began leaving the graphic work to people who were particularly skilled at it, and started directly devising the contents of the games myself. I think Metroid was the last game for which I drew the art myself.
—Next came Famicom Detective Club.
Sakamoto: When I first played Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (The Portopia Serial Murder Case), I was blown away—I thought that feeling of progressing through the story was really captivating. Before that point, my entire thinking was "game = action".
—I suppose you hadn't played any games like that on computers, then?
Sakamoto: I wasn't particularly obsessed with games, personally... that is to say, I wasn't fanatical about them. From that point, after I'd played various similar games on Famicom, I felt like they could've been better if they were a little more accommodating to the player, or offered a stronger sense of production.
On that note, in Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir, there are sections of the game where the player needs to be focused on the investigation, so we tried to curtail the amount of places the player could travel to during those moments. The aim was for the player to enjoy being naturally propelled by the flow of the story and the images and sounds we'd created, and purposely limiting the scope of the player's actions at key points was me putting my own spin on the format. I also put a particular emphasis on the use of music and sound, as music can conjure up mood or atmosphere in ways that can't be achieved solely via graphics.
What's more, there are lots of engaging mystery novels out there, but if you experienced them in game form, they wouldn't be as interesting—in the context of a game, I think a complex and detailed plot demands too much of the player, so I wrote a scenario tailored specifically to the format that, when viewed objectively, might seem a little half-baked, but is more concerned with having the player enjoy the flow of the plot.
Incidentally, one of the users sent us chocolates on Valentine's Day because of this game, and I was really taken aback. It was in that moment that I realized the things we were making were really touching peoples' hearts. Before that, I was actually quite flippant about our work—"whatever, games are just playthings" (laughs)—but that action made me realize the influence, and the potential, of what I was creating. I was so swept up by that feeling that I ended up making a direct sequel. (laughs)
—The ending of the second game (The Girl who Stands Behind) ties into the first game, right? I thought that was really interesting.
Sakamoto: My thinking was that the people playing the second game would enjoy seeing characters from the first game show up. I also wanted to theme the game around a school, as I figured a story about a strange phenomenon involving a girl at a high school would be more captivating than the story of the death of an old lady (laughs). Furthermore, I'm more into horror built upon tension rather than just spraying blood everywhere, so I wanted to push even further in that direction. We ended up porting the second game to Loppi1, but that turned out to be a little tricky.
—Oh, how so?
Sakamoto: The unique feel or atmosphere can't necessarily be preserved even if the technology behind the visuals or sound has improved; rather, it'll be changed into something different. I think a lot of players were unsettled by the click-click-click of the disk loading of the original version, that sort of thing.
There was a point where we were considering including that sound—we were going to have the screen go black for a few seconds while it clicked (laughs). Even just the sound of the letters appearing on screen was affected; during tense moments, the sound would be tweaked to be a little different, but for whatever reason we couldn't recreate that detail on Super Famicom. Just because the hardware's specs have improved doesn't make it strictly superior... it's odd to be looking at the SFC in this way at this point in time. (laughs)
―Was Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru (The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls) your next game after those two?
Sakamoto: Yeah... well, I think so (laughs). There were games I worked on that weren't released in Japan, but as far as within Japan goes, I think Kaeru came next.
At the time, RPGs were becoming popular, but that whole vision of a serious hero bravely setting forth into the world... I wasn't into that (laughs). I thought I'd try to subvert it a little, or make something akin to a parody. This was also the era where RPG battle systems were becoming more and more elaborate, and that was something I thought was getting to be a drag, so I was like, "what's so wrong with rock-paper-scissors?" (laughs) and came up with a system where wins and losses were determined by a very small set of parameters. I thought it'd be really fun to make something with left-field ideas that went against the grain, so I started development...
...but, at the same time, another game called X was being developed by a different team, and I was assigned to take over on that game. However, I hadn't finished writing the scenario for Kaeru, so someone else was put in charge of my half-written scenario, and I told them to keep at it until I returned. (laughs)
―X, which delivered 3D visuals on a Game Boy, was really shocking.
Sakamoto: 3D games were just beginning to emerge at that time, and an overseas company with a high degree of technical expertise approached us with the possibility of making such a game. I thought it'd be a useful experience, so I took the job, but it was tough (laughs). I could talk forever about all the hardships I faced working on that game, so let me sum it up in one word: brutal. (laughs)
When I came back to Kaeru, it was pretty much done, and once it was content-complete, I adjusted the placement of the enemies and the balance of the maps myself. So, put simply, I came up with the basic scenario and game system, left it in the hands of someone else, then returned at the end and fine-tuned the game balance; that's my relationship with Kaeru, and I think it turned out exactly as I'd imagined.
―Finally, we've arrived at Card Hero. When did you start working on this game?
Sakamoto: Around four years ago... when people were talking about N64 and PlayStation. It was the era when graphics were being pushed to the forefront, and I thought that direction would be the mainstream from that point on, but then the Game Boy Pocket and Pokemon were released. Pokemon was a very innovative creation, and I was impressed by all the little touches used to make it feel like you were really collecting living creatures; at the same time, the Game Boy Pocket was not just smaller but had become a much more appealing accessory to want to carry around.
Around that same time, Magic: The Gathering (MtG) became popular in our department, and as I listened to the stories of the people playing the game, I realized it'd make the excellent basis for a video game―the cards don't have much value in and of themselves, but they're extremely desirable to those who are into them, and I thought the way that people were imparting that personal value onto them was similar to the way people might regard certain items in video games.
Pokemon is a game that cultivates affection for such "items", Game Boy Pocket was a platform that could realize them, and MtG offered a game format, so I started to think combining and synthesizing elements from all three would make something really fun.
―So Pokemon, Game Boy Pocket and MtG were the three catalysts, then.
Sakamoto: I decided it'd be a Game Boy project from the very beginning―no matter how great the graphics were or how fast the processing speed was on other hardware, it wasn't gonna work anywhere else (laughs).
Furthermore, we'd decided to make a card game, but we couldn't just adapt the MtG system as-is... or rather, that option wasn't on the table (laughs). Once we decided we had to come up with an original card game that could be played on Game Boy, the very first task was designing the game itself; the entire staff, including the designers and programmers, drew pictures and numbers on paper, made tons of cards and sat down for playtest after playtest.
It took six months to complete the design of the game. As for the formation system... that element came relatively quickly, but we had a hard time crafting it into something really interesting.
As they currently stand, card games are quite different, but in MtG and other card games, there are energy sources like land power cards that use elemental attributes like fire and water that can be added and incorporated to your deck; your primary attribute might be fire, for example, but you can also incorporate other attributes, and the broader strategy comes from trying to build an exquisitely-balanced deck.
Just adding a single card can disrupt the balance of the deck―like playing with a yajirobe, there's a degree of finesse required to crafting a balanced deck, but we thought that might be too demanding for a broader audience, so we eliminated the elemental attribute system, which made it easier to assemble a balanced deck, and also helped make the overall deck more compact. However, it wouldn't be good to let people play cards unconditionally, so some sort of restriction was necessary, and from there we came up with using stones as a sort of currency. I also thought that by utilizing formations in place of attribute elements, we could establish a sort of "power triangle" within the positional relationship of the cards, so we pushed the game in that direction.
―I'd never actually played card games before, so when I saw my friends playing MtG, I had no clue what was going on, but Card Hero's positioning system was easy to intuit just from watching, which made getting into the game quite easy.
Sakamoto: I'm glad to hear you say that! (laughs) People like you are the kind of people I wanted to play this game. MtG's a very appealing game that I want everyone to experience, but it might be a little overwhelming to say to people, "let's dive head-first into the world of MtG!". I don't want people to take this the wrong way, but we were going for "MtG play-acting" or "card game play-acting". I wanted to create a new world of card games that were easy to play, and my hope is that people who are interested in card games from the outside are attracted to it.
―I suppose that explains why the first tutorial is so extensive, then... like I said earlier, I didn't know anything about card games, so I found it to be very helpful.
Sakamoto: Yeah, there were parts where we really dug our heels in. I'm sure there were some people who found it to be overbearing, but in order to broaden the player base, we had no choice but to tailor it to the entry-level mindset. That said, I thought it would be more enjoyable if it told a story rather than being overly didactic, hence the form seen in the game.
―Even so, I found it to be difficult, and it was tough going in the beginning.
Sakamoto: We were very thorough in teaching the rules step-by-step, but when it comes to winning, we can only really offer hints to the player. I think some beginners end up quitting because they're frustrated by being unable to win. It's true that making the opponents gradually become weaker and weaker would've allowed those people to win, but if we'd done that, they wouldn't grow as players.
We also designed the game so that losing would be a part of the user experience, with the player looking to the computer opponents' behavior as a model, so if the player isn't making sound decisions, there's not a whole lot we can do about it. If we cut corners and make it so that the player is able to win by making moves that don't really conform to the rules and theory of the game, then they're not really going to improve... in that sense, I don't think there's any denying that it's a game meant for a certain kind of player.
―The computer's thought routines are quite powerful, aren't they?
Sakamoto: It's been very well-received, and I'm quite proud of it (laughs).
―Even though it's running on an 8-bit CPU, it's clever and makes impressive plays.
Sakamoto: Well, sometimes it takes too long, but isn't that rather "human-like"? In logic-oriented games like this, there's a tendency to think that a faster computer is always better, but many of the people who are into Card Hero have said, "I'm really thinking about my moves, so it wouldn't be fun if the computer could immediately shut me down", and they like that the speed of the computer's response gives them a feel for when they're really sweating their next move (laughs). It's not as if "faster CPU routines = correct response", but I mean, we didn't deliberately make it slow on purpose. (laughs)
―I'm always impressed by the computer's make-stone plays, which they tend to use after they've been thinking for quite a while.
Sakamoto: You almost want to pat yourself on the back, like "look at how I lost!" (laughs) We use to call those CPU make-stone plays a "death sentence" (laughs).
―Did it take you a long time to create the CPU routines?
Sakamoto: Yeah, it did―the first version of the routine was extremely slow, but the programmers were very passionate about enhancing it, so we ended up with something pretty good.
―Did you have a hard time balancing the cards?
Sakamoto: We went through a lot of trial-and-error during the paper prototype phase. We had no problem coming up with idea after idea, but how they'd actually play out in-game was another matter―if something was overly strong, we could apply a stone cost or a point penalty or so on, but if we sanded the edges off everything then everything would be blunt, so to speak, so finding the right middle-ground was something I spent a lot of time worrying about.
Ultimately, I think there's a role for cards that are unilaterally strong or could seen as underhanded, and I think cards like Morgan and Henshin Mirror suit that purpose... after all, those cards are quite hard to acquire, and I think it'd be nice if they afforded a certain advantage to those who were able to get them.
―Are you talking about making a sequel?
Sakamoto: I don't think I can share anything specific with you right now, but I do want to do things to expand the Card Hero player base. If we're operating with the goal of getting children to play, then I think it would be easier and more effective to use actual cards. Right now, we're thinking more in terms of a "booster pack" rather than a sequel―we think the game system is really solid and we want to expand upon it. Of course, I think there are directions for fully-fledged sequels, too.
―Is there any specific way you'd like people to play the game?
Sakamoto: I'd like for them to be really particular about how they play the game, and also to play with lots of different people. Ideally, I envision this as the sort of game played by kids in the 3rd or 4th grade who can never seem to beat anyone, even though they grasp the rules, at which point their father can step in and teach them the strategies to victory. However, those children, who have plenty of free time to practice, will someday overtake their parents... I hope that's the way children and parents will enjoy the game.
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The SFC remake of the second Famicom Detective Club was released exclusively for the "Nintendo Power" service, which allowed players to purchase and download SFC or Game Boy games to rewritable flash cartridges via Loppi, a multi-purpose online kiosk found in Lawson convenience stores.↩